Bids are now open for the Future High Streets Fund – but will architects have a role?

9 January, 2019

Local authorities are being invited to bid for grants to turn Britain’s ailing high streets into housing-led ‘community hubs’.

The £675m fund will help around 27 town centres that could receive in the region of £55 million each.

Only local authorities with town centres facing “significant challenges” are invited to bid but they will not be hard to find.

Over 24,000 shops, pubs and restaurants closed in the first half of last year  prompting fresh fears about the future of town centres but also how retail property can be re-cycled rather than remain bordered up and empty.

The crisis in retail is nothing new but this time around the Government is using it to help solve another crisis – lack of affordable housing.

Last autumn the government announced it was consulting on a further relaxation of planning rules that would allow shops to be converted to other uses including gyms, GP surgeries and homes.

The consultation ending next week (Jan 14th) is likely to reveal strong resistance to further changes to ‘permitted development’ rights – not least from local authorities themselves who believe that they are best placed to set the priorities for their neighbourhoods.

Architects have also expressed doubts about further changes to PD including RIBA which says expanding the policy would have “damaging consequences”.

So will the government take notice of the criticisms – mainly that the quality of homes delivered under PD has been extremely low – and tread more carefully?

One reason to be optimistic is that the balance of retail, business and community facilities such as GP surgeries and libraries the government wants to see on high streets needs sophisticated design skills. Otherwise town centres will be even more of a mess than they are currently.

And what about landlords? As they stand to make much larger rents from housing than empty shops, will they take the easy route and do the bare minimum or will local leadership persuade them to be more ambitious?

Ambition is certainly on the Fund’s radar – a marked change from previous initiatives, which were mainly cosmetic and had no long-term impact. 

The criteria for scoring first round bids has not be released but will be around three key themes – defining the place, setting out the challenges and strategic ambition. Projects which are ‘shovel ready’ may be fast tracked for funding.

Bids that make it through to the second round will be asked to submit a ‘strategic vision’ and business case for the proposed investment. Town centres or high streets that are shortlisted will receive funding to help develop their bids.

So will architects have a role?

It is difficult to see how such a significant reshaping of town centres can be delivered without architects.

But will local authorities choose their architects carefully? This is harder to predict.

One of the issues identified by the government’s retail task force is that local authorities themselves are part of the problem. Too many lack dynamic leadership and have sat on their hands refusing to acknowledge the challenges on their doorstep.

Practices without local authority contacts might feel at a disadvantage but any architect with ideas how to help town centres thrive in this new era should seize the opportunity  – finally, it feels like the time is right.

The deadline to apply to the High Street Fund is March 22nd