The councils trying to save the High Street

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Can councils rejuvenate failing shopping centres?

Local councils have spent more than £800m on the purchase of UK shopping centres over the last three years.

In many struggling town centres, these big properties have become something of an unloved asset by investors.

Buyers are thin on the ground. But councils have been stepping in and acquiring them.

According to the commercial property consultancy Knight Frank, since 2016, councils have snapped up 26 shopping malls – 10 this year alone.

“As traditional buyers have shied away from retail, councils have picked up their activity to become the most active single group buying shopping centres, with nearly one in every three that has sold in 2018 being acquired by a council, within their boroughs,” says Mark Smith, a partner at the firm.

“Their activity has been spread across England, with the uniting factor being the desire to effect change.”

Bolton Council is one of them. It spent more than £14m this year to gain control of Crompton Place, a 1960s-style shopping centre along with its car park covering more than 280,000 sq ft.

“It was a big button to press, but I think it’s money well spent,” says Councillor Ebrahim Adia, Deputy Leader of Bolton Borough Council.

“We recognise that Bolton town centre is in a bit of a decline. We’ve taken the view that the council has a big responsibility to make sure that we help rejuvenate it.

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Wigan Council bought the Galleries Shopping Centre in March

“The shopping centre is strategically very important, right opposite the town hall and I think residents expect us to do whatever it takes to ensure we have a viable town centre.”

Crompton Place has seen better days. There’s an empty BHS at the main entrance. New Look recently moved to a new location and the gaps are getting harder to fill.

The council has now lined up a private consortium to completely redevelop the site. It plans to broaden its use, reducing the number of shops and putting in place residential and leisure units in the hope that this will bring more people into town.

So where’s the money coming from?

‘Un-quantified risk’

The council isn’t using council tax or money from existing budgets, which have already been slashed by some £155m over the last seven years. It’s borrowed the money. Like other authorities, it’s able to secure loans at far cheaper rates than the private sector.

Councils have been pouring record amounts of money into all sorts of commercial property, to generate new sources of income to help fund services.

Bolton has borrowed a total of £100m for its town centre fund as part of a wider £1bn plan to regenerate the town centre.

Councils have recently been issued a warning about the growing scale of these investments.

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Surrey Heath Council has bought the freehold of a House of Fraser store, among other retail purchases.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says councils shouldn’t expose public funds to “unnecessary or un-quantified risk”.

Bolton Council says it’s confident it will get its money back on the shopping centre and that it’s got a good deal.

Crompton Place had been valued at £83m in 2007, when property prices were at their peak.

In the boom times shopping centres were very popular with investors and were frequently bought and sold. Prices collapsed after the recession and have never fully recovered.

They’re dropping in value once again.

Record low

Figures from the real estate investment data provider, MSCI, reveal there’s been a fall in shopping centre property values of 7.9% since 2015, after all the associated costs of running them have been taken into account.

Putting it another way, they’re now worth nearly £4.5bn less than they were. In-town shopping centres have seen the biggest falls.

Transactions have hit a record low for 2018.

Wigan Council bought the struggling Galleries Shopping Centre for £8m in March, more than 90% less than it was worth in 2006 when it was traded for £83m.

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It sounds like a bargain price but have councils bitten off more than they can chew?

Surrey Heath Council has been one of the most active buyers. It spent £86m on Camberley’s main shopping centre. It then went on to spend £17.6m buying the freehold for House of Fraser next door, 18 months before it collapsed into administration.

The shop’s still trading but it could’ve bought the property for a lot less now.

“Clearly there’s always a risk and if councils are buying cheap property to try to make a quick profit, that’s not the right motivation,” says Mark Williams, president of Revo, the retail property body.

“But if it’s being done in order to regenerate their towns, to make them better places, to create employment and make them fit for their residents then that definitely is the right thing to do.”

“The private sector can’t take that long-term view because in many struggling locations, the projects simply aren’t commercially viable. We need councils to kick start these developments, to help bridge the funding gap and bring private investors in.”

That plan is already underway in Bolton.

“We bought this as a temporary investment. We needed to give the private sector the confidence that we’re a local authority willing to have some skin in the game,” says Councillor Adia.

“By buying this site and partnering up with the private sector we will get the chance to do exactly what we want and direct the regeneration that will take place here in the future.”

He and his fellow councillors believe the sums add up, although it will take time to see the full results.