Exteriors of Woodgrange Road commercial premises as shoppers make their way along the sunny street.
Woodgrange Road Conservation Area, Forest Gate, Newham, London. © Historic England DP075414
Woodgrange Road Conservation Area, Forest Gate, Newham, London. © Historic England DP075414

Heritage in Commercial Use

By Alex Hayes, Senior Evaluation Officer, Historic England

With 99.3% of people in England living less than one mile from a listed heritage asset, heritage is a prolific feature of our built environment (1). This remarkable statistic is a reminder that our nationally important historic buildings represent a broad cross-section of buildings and structures. Importantly, they also represent a wide variety of uses, including residential dwellings of all sizes up to the entire Grade II listed Barbican Estate, vital transport infrastructure such as the Grade I listed Severn Bridge that links England and Wales, and through to the thousands of listed commercial premises that populate many of our high streets and town centres.

Last year, we sought to expand our understanding of the role that historic properties play on our high streets and town centres by examining the theme of heritage in commercial use. We commissioned a research study to understand the extent of listed buildings in commercial use and identify what types of businesses choose to locate in them. We appointed Colliers International to carry out geographic analysis of retail, hospitality and commercial operations within listed buildings in 55 English city and town centre locations (2). This study built on evidence from 2012 (3) using the same method, allowing us to also compare what had changed in 50 of the 55 places between 2012 and 2018.

Here are four key points that we learned:

1) There are approximately 142,000 businesses in listed buildings in town and city centres across England

This includes retail, hospitality, accommodation, entertainment and commercial operations. In spite of competition from out-of-town retail and online shopping, retail occupiers are the largest subsector occupying listed buildings nationally.

2) The number of businesses occupying listed buildings has increased by 18% since 2012

In the same period, business occupation of non-listed buildings has increased by 29%, with the difference reflecting the finite stock of heritage assets.

Businesses Occupying Listed Buildings in 50 places20122018Change
Independent retail4,6093,762-18%
Branded retail6111,549154%
Charity retail107100-7%
Independent eating/drinking1,9811,921-3%
Branded eating/drinking233635173%
Creative industries62979026%
Non-professional services6741,04255%
Professional services1,6212,55458%

3) Independent businesses are more likely to occupy listed buildings

Independent retail and hospitality sectors are the largest occupiers of listed buildings in the sample of 55 towns and cities in 2018. Independent eating and drinking establishments are 39% more likely to be found in listed than non-listed buildings.

According to the Local Data Company, independent businesses are particularly important in the current retail environment as national brands continue to consolidate by reducing the number of shops, leaving behind large areas of empty floorspace (4).

4) The number of eating and drinking establishments occupying listed buildings has increased

Whilst traditional high street retailers selling comparison goods (e.g. electronics, clothes and shoes), have struggled in recent times take-up amongst eating and drinking establishments has grown in towns and cities. Cafes and tearooms, and coffee shops are the fourth and fifth most common type of new business opening between 2012 and 2017 (4).

This is mirrored in our research findings which show that eating and drinking establishments in listed buildings have increased by 15% between 2012 and 2018. This growth has largely been driven by branded eating and drinking establishments, which expanded by 173% in the period.

This research has contributed to our growing evidence base demonstrating the role that listed historic buildings play in our day-to-day lives. England’s internationally renowned collection of stately homes, castles and iconic monuments are often the first things that spring to mind when we speak of our historic environment, and these are of course a major part of it. But what this study demonstrates is that historic buildings of national significance are also prevalent in many of our local high streets and town centres.

Furthermore, they make a vital contribution to the local and national economy. They provide business floor space and, as the evidence shows, they are capable of adapting to changing economic and social trends. Indeed, it is this ability to incorporate and adapt to change that has enabled them to survive so long.

As debates continue about the changing nature of our high streets and town centres, it is important to consider what role our heritage can play in helping these places adapt and reinvent themselves for the future.

The full findings of the Colliers study and technical reports can be found on our Heritage Counts 2018 web pages.

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