Empty shops – hide and not seek?

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The question on many chewed lips around the country is what is the solution to the UK’s vacant retails units? Turn them into communal work spaces? Change the use to residential? Or even cover them up and hope that no one will notice them! Disguising empty buildings with hoardings is increasing and, while this may be a short term solution, they have to come out from behind the covers if our high streets are to thrive. Ben Taylor explores the topic.

The change in retailing, and its impact on retailers’ property strategies, is changing the way our retail centres operate.  As multiples shrink the number of stores, more creative ideas appear to address the problem of empty shops.  Pop-ups, inventive hoardings and community groups have all played a role in keeping empty shops utilised and I believe this will continue to be a feature in cities across the UK.

But is this a solution or a disguise? The way to deal with empty shops is different depending on where they are located within the city centre.  Those inside the boundaries will generally look after themselves as they will always attract temporary let operators.  Those outside need longer term strategic solutions, which can only come from a coordinated approach from owners, local and central government and occupiers.

The government needs to offer funding to help property owners deal with the transition. For example, the government could offer relief or adjustments on business rates to encourage independent retailers to relocate from outside the city centre. Landlords are already incentivising property deals to encourage this but this alone isn’t enough to make shops viable.  If this type of incentive doesn’t work then alternative uses have to be considered.

Any empty shop strategy needs to be aligned with an over-arching city centre strategy as ultimately solving the problem is linked directly to the health and vitality of the city centre. 

The transition of empty shops falling outside the city centre will only work if the centre is performing well.  Trying to solve the problem in isolation won’t work. Alternative uses such as residential and employment will only be attracted to these parts once the centre ‘works’. 

One of the biggest hurdles to this is a lack of public funding. There are, however, pockets of funding available such as The High Street Innovation Fund, but these fall substantially short of the amount required. Property owners will need help in the cost of the physical changes required to facilitate change.  A VAT reduction and making planning easier would help.

In light of this situation, it’s not all negative. If nothing else, our era of austerity has brought retailers, property owners and government closer together than ever. The formation of BIDs and various city centre forums all over the UK are forging closer links.

These strengthened relationships are assisting in finding a solution to the problems faced by our city centres and we should be confident this will help deliver the change. As eye catching as some of them are, we need to take down our hoardings and proudly reveal bustling, occupied units.