The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has issued its interim report. It states that as long-term retail demand and shopping habits change, local policy should encourage authorities to work with investors on the redevelopment of low density single use commercial space, retail parks and large format supermarkets, to create mixed ‘finely-grained’ developments of homes, retail and commercial uses which can support and benefit from public transport. It states that there should be an ‘objective measure’ for beauty and design.

The report touches on important principles. The retail landscape is changing and the need for some physical space is decreasing, affecting values in certain locations. The increasing recognition of the potential for alternative uses of these assets, incorporating better designs, is a positive.

I agree that new homes need to be well thought out, with good design principles and strong place-making to ensure they are sustainable in the long-term. However every site needs to be understood in its own right; it goes without saying that no two sites are the same. A practical understanding of whether residential is the appropriate use for a site is required, and if so, ensuring it is well designed with suitable densities. A strong specialist team is important – experienced residential and mixed-use architects are essential for creating schemes that can be delivered, to create places where people want to live – otherwise they will not necessarily be successful places long-term.

Some retail assets provide excellent opportunity for residential development, for many reasons such as strong residential values, complementary surrounding land uses, good transport links and limited planning constraints. However, other locations will not be suitable for housing for a number of reasons – adjacent uses, flood risk, highways, existing values being too high, etc.  A valuation of the site and a thorough understanding of its constraints and opportunities is a vital first step.  Developers should be very wary of jumping too quickly into making a decision on housing as the best land use for the site.  

Where there are site constraints and other factors which would make a residential scheme difficult to deliver, the potential for redevelopment of retail sites into other uses (such as industrial, trade parks etc) should be considered. With high demand for ‘last mile’ logistics space, redeveloping secondary and tertiary retail parks for distribution uses can be a valuable alternative.

It is also important to note that not all retail parks are under pressure – many are thriving. Landlords often want to retain and improve well-performing assets in primary locations, and explore alternative uses for secondary and tertiary locations. Whilst the retail market is constantly evolving and there may be a requirement for properties to adapt, the repurposing of assets for residential purposes is not always the answer.   

Whilst there are some great opportunities coming forward to redevelop retail into residential, it is first important to understand each asset and location in its own right, taking into consideration the planning constraints, market value, surrounding uses and the needs of the community. A one-size-fits-all approach to the design and types of uses on a scheme will not be successful. It would be great to see these points brought out more in the final version of the report.