Few people would disagree that we need to do something to stimulate the economy, particularly in the construction industry.

And though battles are currently being fought to stimulate this sector, such as reducing the VAT payable on building projects to 5% (surely 5% of something is better than 20% of nothing), and removing business rates on empty properties, by far the greatest struggle now taking place in the British economy is the battle to stimulate the housebuilding industry.

House building has so often proved to be one of the first things to pull the UK and the construction industry out of recession, so in some respects we should be encouraged that the politicians recognize this and are actively looking for places and ways to build new housing stock. And the statistics clearly show there is a housing shortage.

It would appear however that our current career politicians have little clue about what's happening in the real world, and typically seem to want the easiest solution to this problem.

Recent headlines suggesting our Government want to cover somewhere between 2 and 3% of England's green fields with new houses - or, amounting to the same thing, expand our villages by a third - shows a would-be policy nothing short of ludicrous and a Government eager to choose the easy way out.

Talk of greenfield building is premature, at best. There is no shortage of derelict and empty buildings in the UK, while large numbers of units already allocated planning consents for residential development on brownfield sites have been mothballed due to the economic climate.

The real opportunity however for future housebuilding lies not so much there, but more in the declining retail sector, particularly the high street and its associated bricks and mortar.

The High Street we once knew, is, quite simply "past its sell-by date". The recent demises of HMV and Jessop's are, it now seems increasingly certain, the first of many more to follow.

Take out the coffee shops, mobile phone purveyors and charity outlets from your typical high street and, I think you'd agree, there wouldn't be many shops left.

Nobody is to blame for this - it's just changing times. We love convenience. We like to shop in the big supermarkets. We enjoy getting everything in Peter Kay's "big shop" or - and this is the killer - online.

HMV died (as a bricks-and-mortar shop at least) because we've become a nation of browsers - we go to see what we want, and then we buy it online.

So what has the demise of the traditional high street to do with the housing market? In planning terms it's referred to as "a change of use".

We've all driven through town centres that seem to go on for miles, with intermittent or run-down shops amongst the many boarded-up ones. By concentrating all the shops into a central core, could the peripheral or just portions of our typical unloved high streets and retail districts be converted to housing?

Could we come to see the many benefits of a wholesale change of use in our city centres?

Many of the shops were built in residential areas anyway.

The buildings were previously houses and could relatively easily be returned to their former use.

Residential buildings would attract more people into town centres and stimulate further activity - as already happens in many cities.

Greenfields and villages would be preserved.

They say change is good - so let's embrace it. Let's make the death of the old be an opportunity for the birth of the new. Because green pastures and our great villages are a key part of our heritage. And that's worth preserving, surely.

 

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