THOUSANDS of shops on a high street could be converted to homes under a controversial proposal announced by planning minister Nick Boles.

He wants to relax the rules to make it easier for councils to transform shops into flats and houses in all but one or two streets in UK towns.

He said: “We want to encourage local councils to concentrate retail activity into the prime shopping streets in the heart of their town centres.”

The reason this is needed is partly down to changing consumer habits including more online shopping, he said.

Lifeless high streets

But industry leaders warned that if rushed through, this could strangle trade for shops outside town centres and drain the life from high streets.

Boles’ announcement follows a high-profile campaign by Government ‘retail tsar’ Mary Portas to regenerate ailing high streets.

Ex-Wickes boss Bill Grimsey, who is due to publish his own report on the high street next month, said there is no coherent strategy for the health of our towns.

He told Retail Express: “It would be disastrous if what Nick Boles said started to happen without a total joined up strategy. There’s a lot of separate streets where there are lots of empty shops and one or two good retailers.

“We can’t have shop-house-shop-house. You need a total plan for the city. For those two or three good retailers you need to find a way to support them and put financial incentives in place.”

ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan said turning some shops into houses and flats is the right solution in some places, but that it must be done with great care.

“This should never be allowed to be a free-for-all,” he said.

NFRN national president Colin Fletcher warned that a planning ‘freefall’ could damage any efforts to revitalise the high street.

“We want to see measures that will encourage the survival of small shopkeepers,” he said.