Repurposing is the sustainable way to boost towns and housing

Steve McSorley is director of civil and structural engineering consultancy Perega

It’s 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 across the country 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’re almost at a turning point, where these struggling urban areas are actively 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 simultaneously boost business and help mitigate the housing crisis.

“Fundamentally, repurposing has to be the way forward for both social and commercial reasons”

As has been widely discussed recently in the media, 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 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. The act of repurposing can bring a range of benefits and doesn’t have to be a solely altruistic exercise either.

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

Financial opportunity in a sustainable way

Councils in the UK have been conflicted on whether to invest in redeveloping town centres, with many appearing 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.

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 and Developers Federation found numerous shortcomings when evaluating the quantum of developable land overall. These shortcomings aren’t 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 projects building affordable housing where budgets are more likely to be constrained.

However, these challenges should not deter progress. For example, Middlewood Locks in Salford is a brownfield-project 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 redevelopment. If additional councils decide to go down the reuse and repurpose route, more jobs and renewed financial capital will course throughout the industry.

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, not a problem.

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

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. Redeveloping closed department stores within town centres to become mixed-use developments would 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’s 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.

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