Repurposing can give a sustainable boost to city centres

Steve McSorley is director of Perega

It is a sad fact that town centres across the UK are struggling to re-establish themselves in a tighter economic landscape post-COVID. Department stores are closing at a worrying rate and reduced discretionary spending, as well as consumers moving online, will potentially lead to more high-street closures.

However, while the pandemic has accelerated this steady, decade-long decline, I don’t believe this is the end of the traditional ‘city centre’ as we know it. Some might suggest we are almost at a turning point, where struggling urban areas are being reinvigorated to give them a new lease of life.

Importantly, this renewal is prompting a reimagining of existing stock, creating more mixed-use spaces and revitalising commercial assets, as well as incorporating residential ones. This could boost business and help to mitigate the housing crisis.

Let me state my case for repurposing and reviving our ailing city centres, so we can soon confidently refer to the rebirth of the high street.

Circularity as a solution

As has been widely discussed recently in the media, embracing the ‘circular economy’ model is becoming an increasing priority for planners.

The reasoning is twofold: adopting a circular approach will not only deliver long-term benefits for blighted communities through renewal, but it will also help to mitigate some of the built environment’s longstanding and negative effects on climate change.

To achieve this, the art of repurposing and renovating abandoned and derelict buildings in town centres, or on their fringes, will be vital. Repurposing can bring a range of benefits and does not have to be a solely altruistic exercise either. Positives and negatives can be found with any potential opportunity, and that also pertains to whether the art of repurposing is commercially viable.

It is an opportunity for developers to sustainably increase their stock and for councils to revitalise their neighbourhoods. This will not only improve the quality of life in our town and city centres, but encourage a revival in urban offices and retail, as well as promoting home ownership and affordable rental properties.

To reverse this decline and breathe new life into town centres, the way forward is clear.

Sustainable financial opportunities

UK councils have been conflicted on whether to invest in redeveloping town centres, with many seeming resigned to giving up. Just recently, councillors in Essex rejected proposals for up to 2,800 new homes in Basildon, as part of the redevelopment of the town’s dilapidated Eastgate Shopping Centre.

“Repurposing requires specialist services, such as decontamination, and fresh core infrastructure to go along with it, especially in rural and semi-rural locations”

Despite pushing for new-build projects on brownfield sites, which are dotted across the country and located close to town centres, the UK government seems to have hit some stumbling blocks. A report published earlier this month by the Land Promoters & Developers Federation (LPDF) found numerous shortcomings when evaluating the overall quantum of land that can be developed.

These shortcomings are not helped by the fact that repurposing requires specialist services, such as decontamination, and fresh core infrastructure to go along with it, especially in rural and semi-rural locations. This costs money, immediately making the brownfield option less attractive, especially for affordable housing projects, where budgets are more likely to be constrained.

Construction gets a much-needed boost

These challenges should not deter progress, however. For example, Middlewood Locks in Salford is a brownfield success story, involving redevelopment near Manchester City Centre. With a new neighbourhood housing 1,117 residents, planning permission was recently granted to start phase three of the redevelopment.

Correctly approached, the UK’s construction and specifier communities could benefit from a rich seam of opportunity. If additional councils decide to go down the reuse and repurpose route, more jobs and renewed financial capital will stream through the industry.

This would be invaluable during a time when political issues such as Brexit, the war in Ukraine and a growing skills shortage are affecting sector performance, slowing output.

Of course, thorough training would be needed to upskill new workers, with each project being taken on a case-by-case basis. This is due to new regulations, building codes and overall standards coming online, particularly focusing on building and fire safety, as well as sustainability. This should be seen as an opportunity, as opposed to a problem.

Furthermore, brownfield sites are often hazardous with the danger not immediately visible, so it is also important to minimise risk for those working on these projects.

Fundamentally, I think those not already considering repurposing are missing a trick. It has to be the way forward for both social and commercial reasons.

Repurposing for more housing

The UK is already having to contend with upheaval and turmoil, with a housing shortage and vacant commercial properties hampering economic progress. But, for every crisis, there is a solution.

Redeveloping closed town-centre department stores to become mixed-use developments will almost certainly have a knock-on effect on all elements of construction, increasing both social and private housing and rejuvenating commercial areas.

Some forward-thinking organisations are actively looking at the opportunities to bring key people together to enable projects to happen, and there are still many challenges to be faced and overcome. Not least, in some circumstances, how property is valued on a balance sheet.

Nevertheless, it is an approach that must surely become more mainstream over the next few years to ensure even the hardest-hit communities in the UK have a brighter future.

Leave a comment