Amid retail decline, the high street may be reborn as housing

As online retail changes the way people shop, a British government minister has put forward a proposal that could change the retail mix in high streets forever.

As online retail changes the way people shop, a British government minister has put forward a proposal that could change the retail mix in high streets forever.

Planning Minister Nick Boles has sounded the death knell for traditional high streets by saying empty or boarded-up shops should be turned into housing.

A consultation paper due out this week will suggest councils throughout England concentrate their efforts to revitalise shopping to just one or two "prime streets". The rest can be converted.

Mr Boles will also allow farmers to convert agricultural buildings such as cowsheds and stables into housing.

The high street proposals mark a dramatic shift in government policy. Two years ago it hired Mary Portas, the "Queen of Shops", to save high streets. In June, she attacked the government for refusing to commit to the "town centre first" planning central to her recommendations.

Retail chiefs said Mr Boles' proposals marked the first time a minister had publicly admitted the high street in its traditional sense was beyond saving.

Bill Grimsey, a campaigner who has called on ministers to admit the high street is dying and needs radical reform, said: "As soon as I heard this, I tweeted 'Hooray'. At last the message is getting through - that there are high streets out there that need to be considered in a very different way. It's only going to get worse. High streets cannot continue to serve solely as a retail destination, they have to be seen as a community hub."

Another retail executive said: "Given the over-expansion into out-of-town shopping, and now the rise of the internet, there is just too much retail space."

A spokesman for Mr Boles' department said there was no estimate of how many homes could be created by relaxing planning rules. He insisted the minister was not "abandoning" the high street, and that more housing closer to shops in prime locations may boost business.

An estimated 14 per cent of British high street shops are empty or boarded up after the credit crisis ripped through the retail sector.