Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash
The report ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’ published by Create Streets outlines how regulation reforms could help to ‘tackle high street decline and transform empty shops into thriving local assets’.
The author Toby Lloyd, a fellow of the Create Streets Foundation (and previously special advisor on housing and local government to PM Theresa May), provides a model with which to address existing systems, legislation and leadership, hoping to enable action by community organisations to take ownership of neglected assets.
Nothing exemplifies a high street in decline more than vacant retail and commercial property.Toby Lloyd, author of ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’
Historic events, like the rise of online retail, COVID-19, and the cost of living crisis, are often quoted as the main causes of high street decline. However, Toby Lloyd argues that property owners also hold largely under-reported accountability for property vacancy. Tackling this issue would require better mitigation by local authorities and existing legislation through improved access for community acquisition.
Empty shops are much more likely to occur with the types of ownership most associated with the traditional mass retail model – UK real estate and property companies and overseas investors.Will Brett and Vidhya Alakeson (2019) as quoted by Toby Lloyd, author of ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’
The report looks at why different property owners may opt for prolonged periods of vacancy as opposed to occupancy.
It turns out that risk management is often at the heart of the matter:
- Owners will avoid lowering rents to avoid loss of confidence from investors and creditors.
- Those who can afford enforced vacancies may prioritise meeting long-term financial targets.
- Overseas investors may use property to store wealth so are less interested in its productive use.
- Occupancy requires management, taxes, insurance and repairs so may be viewed as a ‘hassle’ to let.
- Owners may have plans to renovate and sell in order to raise the property’s book value.
Vacant properties owned by absentee landlords are the scourge of community, holding back the transformation of our high streets.Mark Robinson as quoted by Toby Lloyd, author of ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’
How do we improve access to commercial properties for community organisations so they can easily identify vacancies, secure ownership, and bring these spaces back into use?
Toby Lloyd’s model involves proactive leadership by local authorities in order to:
- Improve the system – registering Assets of Community Value should create a genuine Community Right to Buy opportunity that applies when properties are up for sale.
- Amend existing and draft legislation – encourage owners of neglected properties to bring these spaces back into use or pass ownership to those that will.
Examples of existing technical levers which are at the disposal of councils and communities:
- Section 215 Notices: Councils can enforce property owners to carry out works if an amenity within or adjacent to their area is adversely affected by the owned site. They can do this either by prosecuting the owner until the work has been fulfilled or they can charge the owner and do it themselves. Failure to repay a debt (no minimum value) can result in an enforced sale to recover their costs.
- Repair Notices: Similar to Section 215 Notices, but apply only to listed buildings. If the owner does not comply with the council within 2 months, the authority can compulsorily purchase the property.
- Right to Bid (created by the Localism Act 2011): Community organisations can register property as ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACV), meaning the local authority must be informed when the owner wants to sell as this will trigger the ACV process.
- Community Right to Buy: A Scottish policy allowing communities to register interest in land, and then have a right to buy the asset at a fair, independently assessed price should they come up for sale.
- Assets of Community Value (ACV) process: When registered ACVs go up for sale, communities are given a moratorium period, allowing them time to decide whether they want to bid for (6 months) and time to raise money for the property (6 months).
- Permitted Development Rights: Allow the improvement and extension of homes without the need to make a planning application.
On the basis of these existing tools, Lloyd sets out a reformed system to force underutilised assets into use by, or into the hands of, communities.
One significant weakness that Lloyd identifies in the existing land acquisition system is the ‘Right to Bid’ procedure; he suggests that the term ‘amenity’ is too ambiguous and that the ability for ACV owners to sell property as a ‘going concern’ can be exploited to avoid triggering the moratorium period.
With so many weaknesses in the Right to Bid it is not surprising that, more than ten years after its introduction, only an estimated 15 out of every 1,000 ACVs listed in England (1.5 per cent) have actually been acquired by communitiesToby Lloyd, author of ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’
It is essential that we give community organisations more opportunities to acquire property to promote more locally-based retail, commercial, and wider civic use in high streets and town centres. ‘Re-creating the platoons of place’ allows us to further understand how, through proposals such as those summarised in the flowchart below.
About Create Streets
Create Streets exists to help develop and steward beautiful and popular ‘gentle density’ places which residents and neighbours can love for generations. For people, prosperity and planet. The team works on a number of design codes, masterplans, street designs, community engagement projects and town strategies.
- Toby Lloyd, Create Streets fellow
Published with support from Power to Change and Create Streets Foundation.
- Re-creating the platoons of place
- Take back the High Street: Putting communities in charge of their own town centres
- Take Back the High Street: Why now is the time for a High Street Buyout Fund
Edited by Tabbi Harvey-Crowe & Camilla Siggaard Andersen