It’s been a mixed week. There has been positive news in terms of the prospect of a vaccine on the horizon to combat Covid-19, but there has also been bad news with the collapse of high street stalwarts Arcadia and Debenhams and the potential loss of thousands of jobs.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

According to research by the Local Data Company and Altus Group, London has the largest number of Debenhams and Arcadia stores, with 27 outlets, followed by 15 in Glasgow, 10 in Manchester and 9 in Birmingham.

So with the prospect of more empty retail units, how will we repurpose our high streets and shopping centres?

John Lewis has planning consent to convert almost half its Oxford Street store to offices plus plans for residential redevelopment on 20 sites. Shopping centre owners are looking to residential and office uses to replace redundant retail. Flexible workspace and hospitality services provider Convene plans to repurpose retail boxes as they have done in the US. Together with Brookfield, they have repurposed a former Saks store as a 73,000 sq ft flagship events space.

As CEO and co-founder Ryan Simonetti explained in our recent podcast, they have also carried out a similar retail conversion in Chicago. He said, ‘a big part of our strategy moving forward is going to be the adaptive use of retail and also I think putting Convene as an anchor flagship tenant or a partner to a mixed use development’. ,

He added, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised over the next four to five years that you end up seeing Convene not just as part of office developments but more and more anchoring the adaptive reuse of retail.’

Watch this space.

We are also likely to see new retail concepts emerging and more independent retailers. For instance, a new freemasons’ gift shop is making a surprise opening in Covent Garden. Those that spend time around the Great Queen Street area are used to seeing throngs of mysterious, formally dressed men carrying small briefcases.


Source: Shutterstock/ JessicaGirvan

Now you can find out all about freemasonry and buy their regalia and ritual guides as they open their doors and make their HQ more public facing. And Sook’s new adaptive retail concept which makes retail space available to book by the hour, and personalised to your business with just a few clicks, is now open in two West End locations. As well as their existing South Molton Street unit, they are now in Oxford Street where they fitted out in a record four days.

There is also news of a new food market opening in car free South Molton Street which will be a very welcome addition to the West End’s retail landscape. Hopefully we will start to see more bars, cafes and restaurants along the main West End thoroughfares to enhance the retail offer.

News of the Government’s recent £825 million loan for the completion of the Crossrail line, which will connect east and west London, will have come as good news for the West End which has been waiting patiently for the opening of the new line. However, Crossrail 2, which is intended to provide a north to south London rail link has been quietly shelved.

In his article for On London, Alex Jan, Chairman of the Midtown BID, discusses the implications of the axing of Crossrail 2 as contained in the Government’s first National Infrastructure Strategy. He points out that the project was fully integrated into the revised (but yet to be signed off) new London Plan and he queries how ‘the London Plan can now be published without substantial amendments to take into account the apparent demise of Crossrail 2.’

Against this backdrop, it was encouraging to hear from Andy Byford, our new Transport for London Commissioner at a recent London Chamber of Commerce roundtable. With Byford’s infectious drive and enthusiasm to ensure London retains its position as the top global city, this is unlikely to be the last we hear of Crossrail 2.

Continuing with the London infrastructure theme, engineers have come up with an inventive plan to build a temporary double-decker crossing over the structure of London’s Grade II* listed Hammersmith Bridge, whose closure in August for safety reasons has played havoc with traffic in the area. The plan would allow vehicles to start using the bridge during repair works. The proposal was drawn up by Foster and Partners and specialist bridge engineers COWI.

The upper level would be used by vehicles while pedestrians and cyclists will use a lower level. According to press reports, the plan was conceived at the request of Sir John Ritblat, who was approached for a solution by Hammersmith & Fulham Council Leader Stephen Cowan. It is good to see the public and private sector collaborating constructively to come up with a good practical solution.

This week saw the first virtual Property Week RESI Awards hosted by the very urbane Charlie Stayt from BBC Breakfast. We even managed some useful virtual networking between the awards and the excellent entertainment. Appropriately, a special Memorial Award commemorated the passing, earlier this year, of one of the sector’s most influential and respected figures, Berkeley Homes chairman, Tony Pidgley.

Congratulations go to all winners but I was particularly pleased to see that Connected Living London, the JV between TfL, Grainger and the Mayor of London won the coveted #PRS Deal of the Year Award. From my recent interviews with both TfL’s Graeme Craig and Grainger CEO Helen Gordon, it was clear that this was an exceptional collaboration.

During the podcast, Craig said of the JV, ‘it’s gone amazingly well. They’ve been a superb partner for us.’ Gordon commented that Craig ‘runs an amazing team, he’s collected some really talented people around him.’ And she added, ‘we felt very much part of the TfL family and it’s a really good working relationship’. Their partnership is on a combined mission to provide London with some of the best housing that it will have at all tenures, and, as Gordon said, a real motivation is the fact that we know that that income subsequently is also supporting the Tube as well and TfL’s overall finances and we’ve shown that build-to-rent is really resilient income.’

Finally news broke this week of a major tech sector deal. Salesforce has bought workplace chat platform Slack for almost $28 billion. The acquisition positions Salesforce to compete more strongly with Microsoft and its Teams platform. Will anyone be looking to acquire the Zoom platform, which we have come to rely on so heavily during lockdown? Zoom has in recent months been valued at circa $35 billion.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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