February 29, 2024

Crisis brings opportunities, the time for regeneration is now

The volume of issues the UK is having to contend with is rising. From trying to rebuild the economy after the recent pandemic to increased inflation, there are many factors impeding the scope for progression. To add to that, the escalating housing crisis is providing cause for concern for homeowners, the government and housebuilders alike. Here Steve McSorley, Director at structural and civil engineering practice, Perega, looks at how the challenges can be turned into opportunities.

It’s an ever-increasing problem that has had successive governments attempting to alleviate the housing shortage, and while ideas have been original, many stall and are then revised to more modest but unfeasible targets.

This lack of overall movement has led to delays in productivity and an accumulation of potential homeowners trying to climb, or jump on, the housing ladder. However, there’s a possible solution to increasing housing supply, and one that should be more widely discussed: repurposing the closed and derelict department stores within town centres into new homes, apartments, and mixed-use developments, along with provisions for healthcare and other essential public services.

Retail Departure

Department stores in town centres across the UK are closing at an alarming rate. Several factors are behind this. The recent Covid-19 pandemic is the most obvious, but the steady migration to online shopping over the past five years has been a killer for the retail market.

This has been exacerbated by the rising cost of living and a reduction in discretionary spending, leading to what’s become known as ‘the death of the high street’. To alleviate this dire situation, redevelopment of town centres by repurposing these abandoned temples of retail is growing in popularity, with public and private sector organisations looking at ways they can revitalise these once-thriving metropolitan areas.

There are several advantages to renovating abandoned buildings and bringing them back to life. The process is efficient from the start because the crucial building structure is already there and, often, behind the façade, is in a reasonable state of repair. Additionally, you typically have access to core infrastructure, such as lines to utilities, roads that connect to stores, public transport, and other crucial services like hospitals and schools.

Reducing the risk

Redeveloping and building on brownfield sites have become popular avenues, and the government has brought in incentives to encourage developers to consider it. However, in an era of high costs and low margins, profitability is key, and appetite remains lukewarm as investors are yet to be convinced by the return on investment.

On a practical level, feasibility issues abound, potential buildings left in poor condition will require significant remedial work. This can be efficiently addressed by adopting a piecemeal approach to the investigative phase. For example, instead of investigating the whole building, getting in specialists to focus on specific or major areas of concern will quickly reveal whether it’s viable to move forward or not.

Minimising risk is the most important thing, especially when it involves a building that hasn’t been in use for many years. Regulations are being changed constantly, with fire safety updates being a notable recent example.

Ultimately, this means that a high level of detailed thought and investigation is needed to ensure compliance with such regulations. Once planning submissions indicate a change of use is possible, it’s important to move early in completing the necessary surveys, consultations, and design work.

Sustainably vigilant for a vibrant future

Using sustainable approaches, such as fabric first specification, will ultimately assist in making these redeveloped buildings far more safe, sustainable and energy-efficient. The use of fabric-first, in particular, can greatly improve energy efficiency, providing savings for potential housing tenants and the industry overall. This all will aid in working towards the Net Zero 2050 targets.

There is no doubt that town centres need saving, and we believe that it can be done while also improving housing supply and public services.

If developers, local authorities, and other public sector bodies can approach these potential projects imaginatively, then this new market opportunity will breathe renewed life into the UK’s construction community. Not only will it increase economic activity and foster job creation, but it also has the potential to create a swathe of new social and private housing for some of the hardest-hit parts of the UK.