The ideas to reboot Britain’s pandemic-stricken high streets are coming in. After a record number of shop closures last year during the worst recession in history, stores are being replaced with student flats, gyms and crazy golf courses. But in one corner of south London, there is a different approach: retirement homes.
A retirement village has been built between Balham and Clapham high streets in south London, one of a number of purpose-built apartment blocks for older people that are springing up in town and city centres across the UK after a year of devastation for shopping districts.
Local planners hope that by bringing more people into town centres, these residences will help to regenerate Britain’s high streets.
Dominic Curran, a property policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, said: “It is a very good idea to get more people living in town centres. We also need more housing for older people over 65, and it absolutely makes sense for them to be living in urban locations. Many will move with a lot of housing equity in their pockets, which will generate spend and footfall for local shops.”
The retirement home idea is running alongside plans to convert empty shopping sites. All over the UK, there are proposals to change derelict high street locations into something else. In Reading, a House of Fraser outlet is being converted into a food hall, bowling alley and crazy golf course, while on London’s Oxford Street a former BHS store has become a Swingers golf centre and food hall. In Edinburgh, the House of Fraser on Princes Street is being developed by the drinks firm Diageo into a tourist attraction promoting Johnnie Walker whisky.
However, Curran said high streets need more housing to survive alongside retail and leisure.
To help struggling high streets, the BRC is calling for reforms to business rates – the tax businesses pay on the properties they operate from – as part of a landmark government review under way. It also said support is needed to address £2.8bn of rent arrears built up by retailers unable to trade from physical premises during the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers make up 5% of the economy yet account for 25% of business rates. Firms have benefited from rates relief during the pandemic but this is set to end on 30 June.
Retirement villages have traditionally been gated communities in the countryside and on the edge of towns but developers have been snapping up retail and office sites that lie vacant in urban areas to build apartment blocks for the over-65s, many of whom want to be closer to bustling city centres for eating out, shopping and cultural pursuits. Several village builders reported that inquiries for retirement housing jumped during the Covid crisis, with more people feeling isolated and lonely.
“Too often retirement villages are built away from local amenities with poor public transport links,” says Liz Emerson, a co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, a charity. “We welcome any developments that bring older generations back into the heart of communities.”
Dorothy Fowler, 79, was one of the first to buy an apartment in the Audley retirement village in Clapham that opened at the start of the pandemic in 2020. As soon as Covid restrictions were eased in April, she went out for a restaurant meal with a group of other residents.
“We’ve all become good friends, probably because of Covid,” she says. “We are right next to Clapham South tube and will be able to go to the West End.” Audley also offers to take residents in a van for regular shopping and cultural trips.
As cities are being reshaped, the Social Market Foundation, a thinktank, said retirement housing could play a key role in the town and city centres of the future, especially if there is reduced need for retail and office space.
A record 11,120 chain store outlets closed between January and June last year, while 5,119 opened. The 6,001 net store closures were double the level in the same period a year earlier, as many shops fail to reopen, and the switch to working from home risks permanently lower levels of city centre footfall.
Developers are spoiled for choice. Audley’s chief executive, Nick Sanderson, said the company was offered three shopping centre sites in only one week, as well as “every Debenhams department store” after the retailer’s liquidation.
“Bringing [older communities] back into the centre of things is good for town centres because they are bringing economic vitality when everyone else is working,” he said.
Retirement Villages Group, which is backed by Axa Investment Managers, the French asset management firm, plans to build 5,000 homes for older people across 40 urban sites over the next 10 years. It recently received planning consent for West Byfleet and Chester, which will include some rental homes. “Our strategy going forward is urban,” says Will Bax, the firm’s chief executive.
The pensions and insurance group Legal & General has the ambition to build 3,000 retirement homes in UK city centres in a £2bn project in coming years. Its Guild Living arm has plans for retirement residences on the sites of former Homebase stores in Walton-on-Thames and Bath, and on the site of a former hospital in Epsom, as well as its first London project in Uxbridge on the site of a retail warehouse.
However, not everyone is a fan of retirement residences in urban areas.
Legal & General’s projects for Walton-on-Thames, Bath and Epsom have been rejected by council planners; the company has lodged appeals. Eugene Marchese, a co-founder of Guild Living, has accused Elmbridge borough council of ageism but the council rejected this and insisted that family homes were also “much-needed” in Walton-on-Thames. In Bath, one critic described the company’s plans a “ghetto for the elderly”.
Nonetheless, retirement accommodation will remain part of the conversation over the future of the high street.