This week we had the second meeting of the NLA’s Expert Panel on Education, and this time the topic was redundant retail. The Covid crisis has generally intensified the stresses that were facing traditional bricks and mortar retailing, leading to a steady increase in the number of empty shops across the capital. Research back in March by the Local Data Company suggested that the UK lost 11,000 shops in 2020, with a further 18,000 set to close in 2021.
The challenge for high streets, and possibly the opportunity for education, is that the failure of major retail groups such as Debenhams and Topshop has led to a rise in much larger units becoming available than before – few of which have potential for re-use as retail. The group felt that this represented a significant opportunity for some education providers to both deal with a lack of space that had been a challenge in some locations, and to deliver closer engagement with community. For example, many universities have struggled to break down the ‘town versus gown’ mentality, and the members of the panel felt that having satellite premises integrated closely within the town and city centre could help do that.
When we came to discuss cases studies, it is clear that this trend is well underway both locally and internationally, with free schools making use of all types of redundant commercial space, and universities such as Gloucester acquiring ex-department stores to expand their faculty. In the USA entire vacant malls have been acquired by school and colleges for conversion to educational spaces. Across London private education providers are also embracing the opportunity to have a shopfront on the high street, whether they offer homework clubs and tuition, or adult education.
It was the latter of these two opportunities that the members of the panel felt offered most potential for the future. An accelerating need for reskilling and upskilling in both London and the national economy will lead to a rise in demand for educational spaces that are accessible to all types of people, not just the traditional child or young adult. An empty shop in a CBD close to where people live and work could well be the most convenient place for someone to drop into after work to pursue some kind of learning.
While many on the panel felt that education would enhance the mix of uses in a town centre, whether that is by filling vacant retail premises or designed in as part of major mixed-use projects, there was also concern that we do not repeat some of the mistakes of the past. New educational spaces should be porous and inclusive to the wider community, while ensuring that children and young adults are assured the appropriate levels of safeguarding. Again the feeling of the panel was that redundant retail spaces were more likely to be best used by adult education providers who will have fewer concerns around the provision of outside spaces for play, or the higher levels of particulate pollution that comes with a CBD location.
Once size undoubtedly does not fit all education providers, and the conversion of larger retail spaces to educational uses comes with similar challenges to their conversion to residential, not to mention the lack of external and green space in such typically dense facilities. Large, deep floorplates are not conducive to delivering bright and healthy learning spaces without considerable and expensive reconfiguring. Also, many of these redundant department store spaces are fairly aged and unlikely to comply with modern standards on ventilation, materials and emissions. In some cases this will definitely mean that it would be easier to demolish and rebuild than retrofit, though the panel cautioned that this was likely to become less and less supportable as the understanding and measurement of whole life carbon becomes more common. To address this problem in the future, flexibility is critical so that buildings can be adapted for various uses in its lifespan.
Not all redundant retail spaces or locations will be suitable for some kind of education offer, and not all educational providers are seeking to expand. We also discussed the pressures that some schools and universities are under in terms of under utilising their existing spaces. Indeed, some are looking at bringing business and community organisations onto their campuses to improve occupancy and enhance relationships with the local community.
Finally we discussed areas where we felt that the industry and the NLA could do more work, and what questions remain to be answered. These included:
· Whether planners and developers should be designing in educational uses to all new schemes as part of creating a vibrant community;
· Can we measure the value of education to a sustainable city, and the potential downside of losing or inhibiting its growth;
· Whether we should be designing the next generation of buildings to be able to better flex their usage over time as cycles and structural changes occur;
· Also, could there be such a thing as a department store for education, with anchor brands and seasonal pop-ups?
Broadly all of us were in agreement that vacant retail premises in London could house educational uses, even if only on a meanwhile basis. We also all believe that education should play a part in all great mixed-use locations in London and elsewhere. Furthermore, with a rising global investor interest in the ‘S’ of ESG, funding and providing such space should become easier. However, just because a space is vacant or cheap does not mean that it is automatically the right space for education – normal design, feasibility and functionality rules still apply!