Locals tell of frustration as empty shops are being converted into homes

In market towns across Britain, a major shift is underway which is seeing swathes of the high street being demolished and converted into flats and new builds in an overhaul of once thriving community centres.  

After peaking in their Victorian heyday, many of these once great emporiums of commerce have struggled to adapt to the rise of online shopping, while changing drinking habits have seen the last round called at thousands of pubs.

Officials across the country are increasingly turning to housing to fill up empty retail units, with the government set to relax planning laws to make shop conversions easier. 

Most recently, the City of London announced plans to convert premises vacant by Covid into 1,500 new homes by 2030 in a bit to ‘adapt to post-pandemic economic and social trends’.  

This government-sponsored drive to make housing the future of the high street has proved controversial, with fears this approach could hollow out town centres even further and leave locals lacking vital services. In some cases, shops have moved from the high street to gleaming out of town retail parks.  

These concerns have been echoed by residents of towns across the country which face losing their much-loved local shops, who told MailOnline of their fears that not enough attention is being paid to Britain’s historic town centres.  

BICESTER, OXFORDSHIRE 

The once bustling market town of Bicester is ‘slowly dying’ and will only get worse if empty shops are converted into homes, local residents complain. 

The closure of more than half dozen major stores during lockdown – including Marks and Spencer – has sent the main town centre into terminal decline, while a series of planning applications are underway to convert shops into houses. 

‘We have become a ghost town and it is only going to get worse,’ Polly Lewis, who works in a local butcher, told MailOnline.

‘We desperately need new stores to bring some life back to the town centre. It is very depressing, and I wish something could be done about this.’

Like many High Streets across the UK, Bicester about 13 miles from Oxford, suffered with the closure of many major retailers who were unable to survive the months long lockdowns.

But it also faces competition from nearby Bicester Village, one of the biggest and most popular discount shopping centres in the UK. 

In keeping with high investment in major out of town developments in the area while the high street continues to decline, work has recently stared on a £100m business and technology park known as Catalyst Bicester.  

While there will be no shops to compete against local shops it will include a David Lloyd leisure centre and is expected to create over 1,500 jobs. 

The closure of more than half dozen major stores during lockdown – including Marks and Spencer – has sent the Bicester town centre into terminal decline

The closure of more than half dozen major stores during lockdown – including Marks and Spencer – has sent the Bicester town centre into terminal decline. It is seen in the left in the early 19th century 

In keeping with major out of town developments in the area work has recently stared on a £100m business and technology park known as Catalyst Bicester

In keeping with major out of town developments in the area work has recently stared on a £100m business and technology park known as Catalyst Bicester

Since 2020, the high street has lost a series of stores including Clinton Cards, Peacocks, Dorothy Perkins, M&Co and jewellers H Samuel.

A popular M&S also shut down, but a new store opened in Bicester Shopping Park about three miles away from the town centre.

Residents are dismayed at the decline in the town centre and fear it will only get worse if there are no new shops to breathe life into the main pedestrianised zone.

Developers have already submitted a planning application to demolish the empty Clinton Cards and Dorothy Perkins stores and build 28 flats.

Another application has been made to Cherwell District Council to convert storage space above the empty Peacocks store into three flats.

The store to homes plans has not pleased many residents.

‘What we need are more stores,’ said mother-of-three Zoe Hancock. There is nowhere in the town to buy children’s clothes or shoes.

‘I now do most of my shopping online as I know that way I can get what I want, but I would much prefer to be able to try items on before buying.’

Clinton Cards, (pictured) Peacocks, Dorothy Perkins, M&Co and jewellers H Samuel all closed in 2020 amid changing retail habits

Clinton Cards, (pictured) Peacocks, Dorothy Perkins, M&Co and jewellers H Samuel all closed in 2020 amid changing retail habits 

Diane Hill, who works in a Poundland store, said the town centre was resembling a ‘ghost town’ and had been in decline for a number of years.

‘We need more shops. I know there is a need for housing, but if there are fewer shops then fewer people will come here and it will only get worse. More stores will close or move out of the town.

‘It would be nice if some of the big retailers could open up.’

Her co-worker Sue Gillingham added: ‘We need shops and not homes here.’

Accountant Alice May, 28, said she would be happy to see restaurants and cafes occupy the empty stores rather than homes.

‘The biggest loss here was the M&S. I know lots of elderly people liked to shop in that store and it was bad for the town centre when they moved out.’

Since 1995 the town centre shops have had to compete with Bicester Village, which prior to the pandemic it was visited by 7m people and is the second most popular tourist attraction for Chinese visitors after Buckingham Palace.

While there will be no shops to compete against local shops it will include a David Lloyd leisure centre and is expected to create over 1,500 jobs

While there will be no shops to compete against local shops it will include a David Lloyd leisure centre and is expected to create over 1,500 jobs

They are drawn to the outlet site by its more than 100 designer stores, including Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney.

Its popularity has not been harmed during lockdown and by 11am on Wednesday all 1,000 open air parking spaces had been taken.    

In the last five years hundreds of new homes have been built in the villages around Bicester, including 1,600 at the village of Kingsmere. A further 900 are planned by 2022.

Local residents said the influx of new families should mean more people visiting town centre shops – but not if they were converted into homes.

John Curante, 52, said he had seen a gradual decline that has speeded up during the lockdown.

‘If you walk down the high street you will rarely see anyone under the age of 30. Young people have nothing here for them and they will prefer to go to the outlet stores or other out of town stores where there is much more choice.

‘The only way Bicester can survive if independent stores can open and attract new people.’

Since 1995 the town centre shops have had to compete with Bicester Village, one of the biggest and most popular discount shopping centres in the UK

Since 1995 the town centre shops have had to compete with Bicester Village, one of the biggest and most popular discount shopping centres in the UK

Janet Marshall said small, independent shops would help revive the town centre but feared many would be put off by high ground rents and rates.

She said: ‘While housing sounds like a good idea and would benefit those people who work in the shops it will not do anything to bring more people back to the heart of Bicester.

‘It is depressing when you look around and see all the empty shops. This used to be a bustling town and is now a shadow of itself.’

Bicester Town Council leader Richard Mould has said from talks with local estate agents the large, empty shops were proving difficult to lease.

While he supports empty spaces above stores to be used for new homes he would like to prefer stores on the ground level. 

ASHTON-UNDER-LYNE, GREATER MANCHESTER

The town in Tameside, Greater Manchester is one of the latest to knock down vacant shops and turn the area over to housing. 

In March, councillors approved proposals to demolish the existing buildings on 30-38 Old Street, which once housed a shoe shop. 

The three-storey building is set to include 41 one-bedroom apartments, six studio apartments and two, two-bed flats, as well as a privately-owned car park in the basement. 

In March, councillors in Ashton-under-Lyne approved proposals to demolish the existing buildings on 30-38 Old Street, which once housed a shoe shop

In March, councillors in Ashton-under-Lyne (seen left in the Victorian period) approved proposals to demolish the existing buildings on 30-38 Old Street, (right) which once housed a shoe shop

Sam Thistlethwaite, the agent for the applicant, Yu Group, told the meeting, reported by the Manchester Evening News: ‘The proposals will have a positive impact on the town centre compared to the existing buildings and we believe this is a step forward.

‘The applicant is keen to invest in Ashton town centre.’

Greater Manchester’s night time economy advisor Sacha Lord recently called for more government funding to allow vacant shops to be repurposed into leisure or hospitality venues to prevent further closures. 

He said: ‘Our high streets are changing beyond all recognition and this brings severe and stark challenges. The move to online is inevitable, however as these stores close, we need to look ahead at what will replace them.

‘The groundwork needs to start now to repurpose empty retail stores or risk the end of the high street as we know it.’ 

The calls were backed by Metro mayor Andy Burnham, who added: ‘We will need to rethink the high street coming out of this crisis. Sacha Lord has been a powerful voice for the region and has the right ideas to help us recover and breathe new life into our towns.’ 

STOCKTON-ON-TEES, COUNTY DURHAM  

Locals in the market town of Stockton-on-Tees face questioned plans to demolish half of their high street to make way for a huge park, fearing it will leave people without anywhere to buy essential goods.   

A radical scheme put together by the local council aim to completely rip out the tired Castlegate Shopping Centre, which was built in the 1970s and blocks views of the River Tees.

Stores such as Boots, Greggs and Home Bargains will be forced to move out and in their place will appear an array of restaurants, cafes and offices.

Designs drawn up by Ryder Architecture also depict a circular lawn for outdoor events, a riverside park and a series of steps leading down to the water.

The changes will leave the town centre, which boasts the widest high street in the country, virtually unrecognisable.

An aerial view of market day in Stockton-on-Tees in 1950. The town is known for having one of the widest high streets in the country
Yesterday, under grey skies and drizzle, an air of decay and neglect hung in the air, with shops such as Debenhams and other smaller stores boarded up

An aerial view of market day in Stockton-on-Tees in 1950 (left, and right – yesterday). The town is known for having one of the widest high streets in the country

Radical plans put together by the local council aim to completely rip out the Castlegate Shopping Centre. These photos show what the view looks like now and what it will resemble under the plans 

Yesterday, under grey skies and drizzle, an air of decay and neglect hung in the air, with shops such as Debenhams and other smaller stores boarded up.

Lynsey Finley, 40, runs a clothes stall called Molly’s Closet directly outside the main entrance of the Castlegate Shopping Centre.

While standing in front of a large picture of the new design for the area she told MailOnline: ‘Looking at the plans for the park, you think, that would be a lovely place to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

‘But what about the shops and the market stalls?’    

Frankie Evans, 66, used to work in the food processing industry and is also a fisherman.

He said: ‘Instead of pulling down the shopping centre the council needs focus on regenerating other parts of the town which are much worse. Just round the corner, where there are lots of takeaways, it is very scruffy.

‘I am a fisherman and that river has potential. It should have yachts, boats, moored on it.

‘There’s nothing there. They’ll take down the shopping centre and create a large open space. You’ll be able to see the river, but there’s nothing on it.’

Catering assistant Laura Fisher, 45, who lives in Middlesbrough, had come to Stockton to visit the market.

She said: ‘The market is the only reason I come to Stockton. I love the flower stall here and it’s the closest one to me. You do worry that if the shops go, it might have an impact on the market, with less footfall.

‘Stockton Council say things are going to happen, but a lot of the time they don’t. So, you do wonder if the plans will actually go ahead.

‘The design looks very nice, as you get to see the river but I don’t know what will happen to the shops.

‘I know that in a lot of towns up and down the country shops are making way for housing.

‘But in Middlesbrough where I live, there are so many empty houses. I actually think it would be great if they could be made into small, independent shops.

‘I like the old bones of buildings, and I think they should be kept and repurposed.’

Writer Tracey Iceton, 43, said: ‘Stockton High Street is in a terrible state. It’s dead. There are so many shops which have closed down. If the Castlegate Shopping Centre goes, there will be even less here.’  

The Castlegate Shopping Centre, which was built in the 1970s and blocks views of the River Tees, could soon be pulled down

The Castlegate Shopping Centre, which was built in the 1970s and blocks views of the River Tees, could soon be pulled down 

Grandmother Maureen Morrison, is a retired school dinner lady who lives in nearby Darlington.

The 75-year-old, who remembers Stockton High Street in its hey day, said: ‘When I was a teenager I used to come to a brilliant pub here.

‘It was completely different back then, and a lovely place to visit. The plans for this area look wonderful. A park is a wonderful idea.

‘But the town centre needs shops. You worry that all the shops will disappear. It’s the same with a lot of town centres.

‘I don’t shop online. I much prefer to see what I am buying. But town centres are all the same these days. A lot of shops are boarded up. I normally go into Newcastle city centre.’   

Richard Grey, 44, was setting up his fresh fish stall Denmark Foods in the shadow of the doomed shopping centre.

He said: ‘It’s a perfectly good building. Why don’t they fill it with something useful? There are lots of homeless people in the area.

‘I don’t think it should be knocked down and turned into an open space. Something does need to be done to improve the town centre but I don’t think this is the best way of going about it.’ 

MAIDENHEAD, BERKSHIRE 

Councillors in Maidenhead, where Theresa May is MP, recently approved plans to tear down the Nicholsons Centre, a 1970s mall, and replace it with 650 apartments. 

The new development will include offices and some shops will be maintained, but the total amount of space set aside for retail will be slashed by half. 

Some of the new buildings are due to reach up to 25 storeys – prompting objectors to brand the development ‘Maidhatten’ and ‘only fit for Spider-Man to swing through’, reported the Maidenhead Advertiser

The Bell Hotel on King Street in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with hundreds of people waiting for the arrival of an important visitor
Theresa May is local MP in Maidenhead, which like many British towns has seen its high street suffer from the rise of online shopping

The high street of Maidenhead, Berkshire, during the Victorian period, with hundreds of people waiting for the arrival of an important visitor. A similar part of the modern town is seen on the right 

Councillors Maidenhead recently approved plans to tear down the Nicholsons Centre, a 1970s mall, and replace it with 650 apartments. Pictured is an image of part of the shopping centre now (left) and how it will look under the new plans 

Local man Andrew Hill told a public meeting: ‘Councillors please, for goodness sake, just stop. Do not build Maidhatten, a dark, high-rise town only fit for Spider-Man to swing through.’ 

He also queried plans to halve the amount of shop space, asking: ‘Which 50 per cent of the shops are actually going?’ he asked. ‘Are you really going to put your name to potentially destroying 50 per cent of retail jobs?’ 

But Head of planning at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Adrien Waite, backed the plans. 

‘There will always be things that aren’t to everyone’s liking within a scheme, but there is a substantial amount that has gone into this,’ he said.

‘It is a real opportunity to secure regeneration and positive investment in the town centre.’ 

The new development will include offices and some shops will be maintained, but the total amount of space set aside for retail will be slashed by half

The new development will include offices and some shops will be maintained, but the total amount of space set aside for retail will be slashed by half

BASILDON, ESSEX

Plans to bulldoze vast swathes of Basildon and replace it with hundreds of homes have divided locals, with some warning of the prospect of a £600million high rise ‘ghetto’. 

Vast swathes of the Essex town are set to be knocked down and replaced with high rise housing and retail units standing up to 26 storeys tall.

Shops will be torn down with up to ten 100ft and taller tower blocks replacing them in a bid to bring more than 3,300 homes to the heart of the town.

Critics fear the proposals to make the maligned town ‘the beating heart of Essex’ have been rushed through due to the pandemic and say the tower blocks will create a ‘no go area’.

And some fear the new units will be out of the price range of locals and will be snapped up by commuters heading into London , who can hit the capital in just half an hour.

As it was: Basildon town centre in the 1969. Since then dozens of shops have closed down, leaving many retail units vacant

As it was: Basildon town centre in the 1969. Since then dozens of shops have closed down, leaving many retail units vacant 

Today: Council officials are grappling with hundreds of shop closures that have left large parts of the town centre empty

Today: Council officials are grappling with hundreds of shop closures that have left large parts of the town centre empty 

Now residents have formed a new political party to stop the controversial plans – although they acknowledge their high street is decaying and peppered with empty units.

The Basildon Community Residents Party will stand in next month’s local elections in a bid to kill the so called ‘Basildon’s Bouncing Back’ plans.

Party co-founder and candidate Phil Rackley, 72, called for the proposals stopped.

‘In our view it’s going to completely ruin Basildon, we agree the town looks tired but the idea of putting up massive great tower blocks, is absolutely ridiculous,’ he said.

‘Look what has been going on with people’s mental health with tower blocks and it would make it a whole lot worse. We are worried about the town centre becoming a ghetto or a no-go area.

‘If you stack them high and cram them in people will come frustrated at living so close together it will be a totally unacceptable way of living.’

The fight comes as the new ‘masterplan’ was approved by Basildon Council, which is run by an alliance between Labour and seven independent councillors.

It is claimed the revamp will bring more than 5,000 jobs into the town centre, along with 500 new council homes.

To revive the ‘dying’ high street, the local council have revealed a £600million Basildon Masterplan, which includes thousands of new homes – some of them in high-rise blocks – in the place of struggling shopping centres. Pictured left is the current high street and how planners believe it will look 

The Market Square, as one of the town centre blocks of office and shop space is called, could be replaced with 492 new one and two bedroom flats for renters, with a smattering of shops

The buildings will be a mix of retail and residential with a ‘cultural quarter’ also proposed.

Locals are split on the plans with Sandra Taylor, 76, fearing it will devastate the town.

The retired veterinary nurse said: ‘Tower blocks get shabby very quickly and there’re too many people in a confined place.

‘It will cause chaos immediately and I’m not sure where they got this about bringing jobs from. There will be work when they are building the towers and then they’ll bugger off again. It’s gone downhill here it’s terrible.’

A council worker who did not want to be named due to fears over their job said: ‘It’s awful it is going to kill the town.

‘It is not going to be affordable housing for local people, it will just see the town taken over by people moving in.’

Basildon Council’s planning committee approved plans for nearly 500 homes last Wednesday as part of regeneration plans.

Despite the upheaval traders universally welcomed the proposals saying the town needs urgent help to survive.

Shops will be torn down with up to ten 100ft and taller tower blocks replacing them in a bid to bring more than 3,300 homes to the heart of the town. Pictured is a current view with what it could look like in future under the plans 

Critics fear the proposals to make the maligned town ‘the beating heart of Essex’ have been rushed through due to the pandemic and say the tower blocks will create a ‘no go area’

Tia Marks , 45, who runs Glitz and Glamour in the Eastgate Shopping Centre, said: ‘If there are more houses, there are more people and there are more customers.

‘We need people coming in as this centre is terrible. People moan about the look of tower blocks, but look at London. Everyone goes there and look how grotty it is.

‘It’s just a shame what has happened here as Basildon used to be great.’

Her thoughts were echoed by fellow businesswoman Nilay Acikara , 35, who owns Bath N Bliss next door.

She said: ‘A lot of people don’t want to come to the town centre. I’m local and I have a lot of friends who say they don’t like coming here and I think it is lack of shops, there’s not much to offer.

‘It is knackered and run down, it is just not the best. There are a lot of people against the plan, but I think it is going to improve the town centre.’

Concrete plans for the tower blocks have yet to be fully developed with some proposals seeing 360ft blocks potentially being erected.

Plans for the town square would see the existing 1960s building retained and reconfigured to create four blocks up to 26 storeys high.

Another site earmarked would see a 14-storey block of 300 flats built on an existing retail park.

An artist's impression of the wider redevelopment of Basildon town centre, which will include an area and hundreds of houses, but less retail space than previously

An artist’s impression of the wider redevelopment of Basildon town centre, which will include an area and hundreds of houses, but less retail space than previously  

And plans to partly demolish the Eastgate Shopping Centre and build 2,800 homes have been agreed despite calls to defer the decision for more talks.

The project will see 2,800 flats built and the Asda store demolished and rebuilt in a smaller store in the centre.

Despite the proliferation of high-rise flats and criticism, market trader Harpreet Bhanot , 32, saw the proposal as simple economics.

He said: ‘As a business you need more people coming round and more people spending money and more people buying the healthy stuff we sell.

‘This isn’t the countryside you can’t build detached houses, this is the town centre, you are going to have to do it another way.

‘Basildon needs a bit of TLC – let’s put it that way and this is good news. If there is different scenery people might come to Basildon and hopefully buy some of Basildon’s fruit and veg.’

HIGH WYCOMBE, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE 

Buckinghamshire Council are planning to rip down a ‘redundant’ High Street shopping centre and replace it with 300 new homes. 

Under the plans, the 7,035-square-yard Chilterns Shopping Centre could be ripped down and replaced with a ‘residential development’ within the next ’18 to 24 months’. 

The development is touted as ‘the single biggest transformation’ for High Wycombe’s Old Town, and is a reflection of the struggles of local shops in the fact of competition from online retailing. 

But residents are already frustrated about the decline of High Wycombe as a retail destination, and earlier this year protested about a plan to demolish a row of shops and redevelop them into flats.  

Farm hands wait in the market square to be taken on by new employers at the Michaelmas Hiring Fair in High Wycombe, 1912

Farm hands wait in the market square to be taken on by new employers at the Michaelmas Hiring Fair in High Wycombe, 1912

Councillors in High Wycombe want to rip down the 7,035-square-yard Chilterns Shopping Centre and replace it with a 'residential development'

Councillors in High Wycombe want to rip down the 7,035-square-yard Chilterns Shopping Centre and replace it with a ‘residential development’

The development is touted as 'the single biggest transformation' for High Wycombe's Old Town, and is a reflection of the struggles of local shops in the fact of competition from online retailing

The development is touted as ‘the single biggest transformation’ for High Wycombe’s Old Town, and is a reflection of the struggles of local shops in the fact of competition from online retailing

Locals called the plan to get rid of 175 to 179 Gordon Road, including a popular grocer, as ‘ludicrous’ and accused officials of ripping out a ‘key part of the community’, reported the Bucks Free Press

Objecting to the proposal, nearby resident Malcolm Tinnelly wrote: ‘Essential shops supporting the local community, especially during the pandemic. A perfect reason to ensure such a ludicrous application should not go any further.’

And Mollie Robinson added: ‘The current shops are a long-standing local amenity for the community and as such are used daily by many.’

The plan to rip down the Chilterns Shopping Centre depends on £11.8million of money from the government’s Future High Streets Fund (FHSF), which provides cash to local authorities to transform ailing town centres.     

But residents are already frustrated about the decline of High Wycombe as a retail destination, and earlier this year protested about a plan to demolish a row of shops (pictured) and redevelop them into flats

But residents are already frustrated about the decline of High Wycombe as a retail destination, and earlier this year protested about a plan to demolish a row of shops (pictured) and redevelop them into flats

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