So what goes in your #HighstreetsManifesto…?

🔟 Maybe, to no-one’s great surprise, my starter for 10 would be on vacancy. If we’re only allowed 1, then one of these…?

  • Ask (and resource) every local authority to report on #highstreet vacancy numbers and work with agents, landlords, businesses, community and BID where there is one to overcome barriers to let to include…
  • Give them powers to override national use class guidance and permitted development rules in line with local priorities;
  • Create new local powers to end business rates avoidance and evasion and allow flexibility in the guidance to incentivise tackling vacancy eg around thresholds, ‘fit to occupy’, listed building charity (and CIC) and second unit reliefs;

🪜 Strengthen (and resource) powers to enforce and encourage funding schemes to help with minimum ‘fit to occupy’ standards on all highstreet buildings;

  • Sweep away the additional letting requirements on councils when they are landlords so that local authorities are all beacons of good practice;

🤳🏽 Require every vacant highstreet unit to be marketed with a registered agent and the place to have a publicly available listing;

  • Change the regulations which keep units empty when the previous tenant went into administration or left with time to go on their lease;

💷 Build funds to support #community right to buy including the co-ordination and #property skills to make it happen and be sustainable;

  • Develop a series of pop up use projects leading to longer pilots based on successful examples for arts & crafts, culture, creative and community uses;

🏥 Mandate all NHS Trusts to work with their places to develop accessible first contact & diagnostic services in town centres.

🤔 What would you add / adjust…?

Especially keen to hear from commercial agent colleagues as you’re at the heart of tackling vacancy work…

…and from #placemaking friends with other specialisms for their 10…?

TheVacantShopsAcademy

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Tredegar, Aberdeen, Totally Locally….

Some week that was…

…and it’s why I love this job…!

💡 Three things, connected in a way and all of which taught us a lot.

  • Our 2nd visit to the historic town of Tredegar;
  • Hearing that we’re to work together with the team at Aberdeen Inspired again…
  • And, a bit later than planned, starting to read Chris Sands Totally Locally book.


Tredegar is a #TheVacantShopsAcademy commission but a town centre where we’d thought our typical ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach needed an untypical first step. And that’s what we were there for, talking it thru with #community, business, regen and council folk.

🔑 In Aberdeen we learned the BID have secured funding, thanks to the city council, to run a project to explore potential uses for un- and under-used #highstreet upper floors. The flurry that followed the announcement confirmed two things: how many places have that as an issue, and how many people (who’ve been in touch already) are keen to help us tackle it.

And the book…?

💷 Well, Totally Locally is a brilliant #placemaking story. Please check it out if you haven’t. But the way they’ve created something people in places can deliver themselves reminded me that’s what I’d imagined The Academy would be, and that we need redouble efforts to show how our approach is as easily transferable as we believe.

So…work to do on all three, but better for it.

🙏 Thanks Tredegar, Aberdeen, Chris…!

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Academy to lead ‘upper floors’ study for Aberdeen

A new drive to breathe fresh life into the upper floors of Union Street buildings is being launched by Aberdeen Inspired to help the ongoing campaign to regenerate the Granite Mile. 

The city centre Business Improvement District will commission a feasibility study to create a snapshot of how many of the floors above street level are unused or underused and how they could be made viable and vibrant again. 

Uses to be explored could be a mix of residential, office, arts and culture, leisure, education, health and well-being, as well as retail, hospitality and services. 

The aim is to find ways of attracting people and businesses back into the city to help it thrive, said Adrian Watson, chief executive of Aberdeen Inspired.

“Union Street was created as a place for people to live, to work, to shop and enjoy – it is in the DNA of our main thoroughfare. In its heyday, every building on Union Street was full from the ground level to the uppermost floors and we want to see it that way again,” he said. 

Aberdeen Inspired has now been awarded £15,000 infunding from Aberdeen City Council’s UK Shared Prosperity Fund for a feasibility study on the upper floors of Union Street.

This would give an idea of the scale of underused space above ground level, gather insights into potential uses, look at what barriers could stand in the way of regenerating the upper floor spaces, all while building bridges with businesses, building owners, agents and landlords.

That information could then form the bedrock of a strategy for key partners and agencies in the city to work together to tackle the upper floors issue for the wider benefit of Union Street, its businesses and the wider city.

Mr Watson said the upper floors project would dovetail with the ongoing work of Our Union Street – the community-led project which Aberdeen Inspired helped establish – in filling empty units at ground level. 

“It is right and proper there is a focus on what is happening at street level on Union Street, but bringing all those upper floors back to life with a mix of uses – especially residential – is just as vital,” he said. 

“For any city centre to thrive it needs people living there, facilities and attractions for those residents and an attractive mix of uses that will bring people into the heart of Aberdeen.

“No one underestimates the challenges involved but this study would at least give us a clear idea of what those challenges are and what the route might be to meeting them.”

The feasibility study would be led by town and city centres specialist Iain Nicholson MIPM, founder of The Vacant Shops Academy.

Mr Nicholson said: “The amount of un- and under-used space on high street upper floors is an issue for town and city centres around the country, and it’s great to see Aberdeen taking a lead with this approach to exploring solutions.

“If we can overcome the barriers to getting those spaces back into use, there are benefits both in terms of the vitality of the place and the economics of property. It’ll help us to reduce the number of vacant units but also, by reducing wasted space above occupied ground floor units, bring in more people who’ll become customers for our new and existing businesses.

“The challenge is that it’s often not easy either commercially or practically to re-purpose and re-use these upper floors because of things like access, layout, lighting, storage and waste, especially where the buildings are listed.

“This project will mean Aberdeen understands exactly what the challenges are for its Union Street properties so that the Council, Aberdeen Inspired, Our Union Street and other potential partners can work, strategically, with landlords, agents, businesses, our community and potential new occupiers on a way forward.”

Meanwhile, Mr Watson said these are difficult times for Union Street and the upcoming closure of Marks and Spencer at St Nicholas Street shows how much work is still to be done there. 

He added: “That said, there are many groups and organisations now striving tirelessly towards making Union Street what it could and should be – the jewel in the crown of Aberdeen.”

ENDS

For more information, please contact Scott Begbie, PR and Communications Manager for Aberdeen Inspired on 01224 054307 or scott.begbie@aberdeeninspired.com

Aberdeen Inspired is the banner under which the Aberdeen BID (Business Improvement District) operates, a business-led initiative within the city centre in which levy payers within the BID zone contribute. Proceeds are used to fund projects designed to improve the business district. 

‘upper floors’ study

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“Long live the branch…”

“We are opening branches, not closing them.”

💡 A brilliant, insightful day at the building societies conference, and a great chance to present on the importance to our places of ‘banking services’, and the buildings they are and have been in.

Image thanks to Zoe Campbell Photography


Learned a huge amount to take to the town centres we have #TheVacantShopsAcademy commissions in, and for the wider #highstreet #placemaking conversation about the role of financial services.

📈 A real positivity in the room about the importance of branches, and ways to build on that through innovation and collaborations – as examples with public services, community groups, arts & crafts – which, tbh, runs counter to a lot of the outside narrative we’re more used to hearing:

  • “Our passion for place: why branches matter.”
  • “Long live the branch.”
  • “Nearly half our branches have free community space.”

Thank you to Stuart Fearn MBE and GLORY for the invite, to Richard Fearon and his team for hosting, and to all my fellow speakers, especially Chris Sands at Totally Locally.

📸 A quick visit to Leeds but 💯 a city to return to and study more…!

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Banking on new solutions…

Has the last bank left your town centre…?

Are you down to just one…?

🤔 What’s the impact…?

And if you’ve had #highstreet #bank closures what’s happening to the buildings….? Are they sitting long-time empty or back in (alternative) use…?

🎤 Looking forward to talking through all these issues at an “Invigorating the Community” building societies conference in Leeds on Monday.

As #property and #placemaking colleagues who are working on tackling vacancy will know, these units can often be tricky to get back into use:

🏢 They’re often in large, prominent buildings with frontages less suited to retail or hospitality use;

  • Many are in heritage buildings which have additional re-use challenges, including empty rates relief;

💷 The outgoing banks typically pay a higher rent, and if they’ve been there a while that can be above current market rate so hard to replace;

  • The requirements of banking inside mean that sorting the layout, fitout etc. can be more significant;

🗝️ Banks often leave before lease end so that the very tricky assignment process is in play to try get the unit occupied.

One encouraging development is the group of, largely #hospitality but some #retail, brands doing great work in repurposing and re-opening this kind of empty.

🗣️ It’d be great to see examples, and to hear how your town or city centre is overcoming these challenges…!

Do let us know…

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“It’s such a great town centre…!”

🤳🏽 …the message I sent to a friend and local champion for the place of my first #highstreet out & about visit of 2024.

And it is in many ways, as the set of images below shows – just a sample of those I could’ve used to illustrate its positives.

🛍️ New openings, brand and #indie, #retail, #hospitality, services and third sector, since my previous visit.

🎨 Stunning new #streetart to add to an already strong collection.



+ Investment in hotel, office, access…

…and around the town centre and on its fringes history, heritage and always a sense of a strong community keen to play its part.

And yet some of those who read to the end and see which town I’m talking about will have a different perspective, as the clearly upset resident who strolled up to talk to me that day had.

But that’s the opportunity. This town feels like a perfect example of how the ‘alternative uses’ we often list here – arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing – can be key to its ‘next steps’.

🔑 Same for the always crucial place partnership, bringing #property agents, landlords, businesses, community & council together to understand the vacancy backstory and barriers and focus on how they’re best overcome.

Lots to do #placemaking, but…

So here’s to: Swindon town centre.

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“The 39 stops…”

🎥 …to borrow and adjust an old movie title.

That’s how many places we visited with #TheVacantShopsAcademy in 2023, racking up what our app reckons is a decent CO2 saving.

🤔 Where next…?

The majority of those visits were on tackling #highstreet empty shops issues commissions, plus others to catch up with #property & #placemaking colleagues, and see some new locations.

Learned a huge amount, met brilliant people, saw a lot of great projects & positive developments; ‘audit, engage’ covered no shortage of new #retail, #hospitality and alternative uses openings, and we’re on to supporting a number of places to introduce priorities from our ‘next steps’ suggestions.

🤳🏽 Now planning the first trips of 2024 with Sunderland, Rugby, Tredegar and Leeds (for the “Invigorating the Community” event with Stuart Fearn MBE) among them.

Really exciting conversations also this week with a number of place leaders and managers about vacancy challenges in their town or city centre, so hopefully…! 🤞🤞🤞

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Let’s go…

It feels like a huge year ahead for the #highstreet…

🤔 …what do you think…?

From a #TheVacantShopsAcademy perspective it’s one we very much hope will see more places – councils or BIDs where there is one or a combination of the two – recognising just how much difference they can make in tackling vacancy, prioritising the issue, and securing the capacity and resources it needs.

They’ll find much in their favour.

  • We know that, by running ‘audit, engage’ and working with #property agents, landlords, businesses and community, empty shops numbers can be brought down;

🎨 with arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing we’ve now a much wider range of options alongside #retail, #hospitality & services to look to, and an increasing number of examples to show how;

  • more and more places are running impactful grant funding schemes to help overcome barriers to getting empty units back into use, so there’s good case study material to draw on;

🛍️ there’s a lengthening list of national brands with requirements lists and target locations looking to open extra stores and venues along with incoming new #indie occupiers which you can reach out to;

  • the government’s High Street Rental Auctions power should launch this year giving places a potential extra tool in the toolkit against the trickier empties, and the consultation on ways to reduce business rates tax evasion & avoidance may deliver helpful adjustments too.

📉 Of course we’re still in challenging times but I’d say to places – even those with headline vacancy rates in the mid-high teens and low twenty percents – we know how to do this.

Let’s go…

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Why ‘audit, engage’…? Here’s why…!

So how are you going about tackling empty shops issues in your town or city centre…?

🤔 Do you need to demolish…? Will some have to be re-purposed to resi or office…? Maybe. Or might they re-let…?

🚈 We had (yet) another illustration of how the picture can change even in a short space of time on a flying – or whatever the train trip equivalent of that is – visit to Monmouth.

📉 It’s a town we’ve been running our ‘audit, engage’ approach in since the spring. By the end of summer, the number of ‘empty & available’ units was a third of the original headline vacancy figure. This weekend there are signs that even more of the initial vacants are let or getting there.

…and it’s something we’ve seen in several of our #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations.

There’s work to do here still – as in the other places. But now there’s a clearer picture, and decisions on policy and projects can be much more strongly evidence-based, and so more likely to be what’s needed…!

It’s another example of why we urge places not to try deal with vacancy on your #highstreet based on a snap shot.

Instead, run ‘audit, engage’. Check their current status with the #property agent or landlord. Understand the backstory and establish what barriers there are to them being let. Then work with agents, landlords, businesses and your community to do what you can as a place to get them back into use.

🔑 Otherwise, you risk doing the wrong thing. Reducing your stock of units for #retail, #hospitality, services or one of the lengthening list of ‘alternative uses’ – arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing – when actually what you need do is different, and maybe even the opposite.

🗣️ We’d love to hear from places who’d like to try tackling empty shops issues this way. Please get in touch…!

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#STC23

Wellbeing.”

“Living Well Locally.”

“People, place, planet.”

🤔 Which words and phrases do you most relate to our work in towns and city centres…?

💭 If we’d done a ‘word cloud’ of the early sessions of the 2023 Scotland’s Towns Partnership conference in Dundee, those would be some of the ones to feature.

It was an interesting, insightful, enjoyable event, and great to be in a room with #placemakers where these themes are rated sooooo important, along with topics like net zero, town centre living, innovation, enterprise and connectivity.

💙 …and it’s all part of the holistic approach to place that’s at the heart of Scotland’s approach.

A brilliant day to top off my trip which started by catching up with the Our Union Street and Aberdeen Inspired #BID teams, and a walk-see of the city’s main street to check how things are changing since we ran ‘audit, engage’ there last autumn.

👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Thanks everyone.

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