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Local shops for local people

What do councils have against estate and letting agents, asks Nigel Lewis, enough to keep them from bringing much-needed commerce to the UK’s high streets?

Nigel Lewis

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If like me you have the unenviable task of scrolling through reams of planning meeting transcripts, local newspaper opinion pieces and political pamphlets, then you will be aware that estate agency branches are not popular with local politicians.

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Nigel Lewis

It is culture war that, while not as foot stomping as statue toppling or Brexit, remains largely hidden.

While most culture wars are between political interest groups and national governments – including the current ‘war on woke’ – local councils have been waging their own little culture war against an entire industry – estate agencies.

It is a strange one, to say the least. No-one froths at council planning meetings about the ever-increasing numbers of cake shops on local high streets, or that the town/city/ neighbourhood has too many pubs. It would be equally silly if they said flower shops were getting out of control, breeding like daffs on a Spring morning. “Weed them out”, no-one ever shouts. “Cut them down to size” is rarely seen in council minutes.

And yet often estate agents requesting to take over leasehold high street premises and change their use from A1 (shop) to A2 (professional services) struggle to get permission – or are flat turned down – on the basis that such-and-such town ‘has too many estate agents’. This is often despite there being no other takers for the premises in a town or neighbourhood where empty shops are already too numerous.

Obsessed planning committees

To the naïve onlooker – which is usually me – it seems that local planning committees are so obsessed with getting the ‘mix right’ on their high streets that they omit to see Rome burning beneath their feet. Let me give you a recent example we reported on in February this year.

A council in Scotland refused planning permission for a former pet store to be taken over by an estate agency despite no alternative business being lined up and agreeing that the town in question ‘has too many agents already’.

Surely a clutch of estate agency branches in an area reveals a strong local economy. Why are they unpopular?

South Lanarkshire refused the landlord of Creature Comforts in Burnside near Glasgow permission to change the retail unit into an estate agency branch. This followed the landlord being approached by a local estate agency who wanted to take the lease after the pet shop gave notice to quit.

Councillors voted by 15 to seven at a meeting of the planning committee in favour of a motion by Cllr Carol Nugent, to refuse the application. She said the council needed to protect the “vibrant and bustling” areas that the town had and the diversity of its high street. “I think it would be a big mistake to change the use from retail to office,” she said.

But as the case proved, it’s not just councillors who are against estate agents. In Burnside 178 members of the public also opposed the Change of Use application, people who were said to be “concerned about the number of estate agents already in Burnside”.

Given this small group of pitchfork wielding locals, South Lanarkshire councillors said they had voted to refuse the Change of Use despite its own planning officer advising the meeting a retail unit moving to a class two unit “would be acceptable in planning terms”.

Resentment

All this begs the question – why are estate agency branches so unpopular? Surely a clutch of estate agency branches in an area reveals a strong local economy where people are moving home, be it to rent or buy. And an estate agency branch will employ four of five people, more than a flower shop and many other kinds of retail units of a comparable size.

One answer is that there are some people – 178 in Burnside out of a population of 15,000 to be precise – who resent the process of buying and selling homes and the industry that facilitates it, based on the fact that an estate agency doesn’t sell ‘things’ but is rather, a service.

The trouble is, they’re a vocal lot with a culture war axe to grind and have friends in high places. Perhaps it’s time organisations like Propertymark did something about it.

July 28, 2021

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