‘Next Steps’…!

Insightful and enjoyable day with Louise Welsby and the team at Buy-From this week.

🚈 After two and a half years of tackling #highstreet vacancy projects for #TheVacantShopsAcademy, it’s really helpful to take time to stand back, reflect on the journey so far and talk thru the best way forward.

🗝️ It’s been great to work with #property and #placemaking colleagues in the 24 locations we’ve been commissioned in so far (with 3 more to start next month)…

…but we strongly believe in – and we’re seeing the positive impact of – our ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach, and are setting out now to take that to every place where the number of empty units is too high.

If the vacancy rate in your town or city centre is in the mid – high teens or over twenty per cent, it’s higher than it need be. Agents, landlords, businesses, community, council(s) and BID where there is one, working together, can bring that down. Leave things be or have only one or two of that list on the case and things are more likely to worsen.

If that’s your place we’d love to hear from you…!

📸 Thanks for remembering to capture an image of the visit Louise ( I think 🫣).

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Manifesto time…?

I’m not sure how much of the campaign cake #highstreet and specifically tackling vacancy will get, maybe a small slice given other priorities.

But now we know places can halve their headline vacancy rate and by doing things all towns and cities can do, why wouldn’t it appeal.

We know how to do this, and #TheVacantShopsAcademy #HighstreetsManifesto sets out what we’d need. Even the new government giving us just the first of them would take a chunk off the national 14% rate.

🙏 So here goes…!

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

🪜 Strengthen (and resource) regulations to enforce 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 empty & available units listing;

  • Change the process 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 #popup 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 & city centres;

  • Encourage and resource places to ‘audit’ and develop strategies to reduce un- and under-used space on upper floors of vacant and occupied units.

🤔 What would you add / adjust…?

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High Street Rental Auctions update, May 2024…

A useful addition to the tackling #highstreet vacancy toolkit or unnecessary and unworkable.

⚖️ The incoming High Street Rental Auctions power for local councils has certainly divided opinion amongst #property and #placemaking colleagues.

🤔 What do you think…?

This is how the update this week read:

“New powers for communities to regenerate high streets and fill empty shops will be in force by the summer, the government has announced.”

“Where a high street shop has been empty for over a year, High Street Rental Auctions will allow local leaders to step in and auction off a rental lease for up to five years. Auctions will take place with no reserve price, giving local businesses and community groups the opportunity to occupy space on the high street at a competitive market rate.”

🏢 It’s being welcomed by places that are trying to get long-time empty units back into play, and feel frustrated by efforts to connect and engage with landlords. But opposed by those who say that it’s misunderstood the reasons for vacancy.

For me, I still favour the positive ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach we’re working with town and city centres on thru #TheVacantShopsAcademy, and believe that in the vast majority of cases that’ll get the job done. Thinking back over 11 years of doing this tho there are some units we didn’t win, and maybe having this power in reserve might have done the trick.

We’ll see.

It’d be great to get your take on it…

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A fun, safe place to play…

One of the (many) joys of #highstreet #placemaking is finding projects that are making a real difference in their communities, and in these cases making great use of difficult to let vacant units.

As part of an all round enjoyable and insightful out & about in the city of Exeter (of which more later), I was lucky enough to see 3 special initiatives within a few feet of each other on the upper floor of The Guildhall Shopping Centre.

🦖 Little Exeter, a not-for-profit, #community #popup: “…utilising a city centre location and created by passionate people who have poured in their love and attention to create a fun, safe place to play for under 7s, funded by our awesome city partners”;

🎨 Meraki Art School: “Fun and inspiring art classes for young people aged 4-16 with a passion for art & craft, run and delivered by professional artists”;

  • And between the two, an innovative Baby Nursing and Feeding room.

🤳🏽 I can’t do justice to the stories, the thinking behind them and the partnership working involved, in a single post, but would encourage town and city centre colleagues, especially those in shopping centres, to make contact to hear more.

All three are well-thought out, community-focused, carefully delivered projects that I’m certain will be of interest and could be a solution for your place…?

Thanks to Nikki Fairclough for sharing those stories and to Nicola Wheeler at InExeter BID for making the introduction.

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A #highstreet #Evolving…

🏗️ There’s always something changing to see on a #placemaking out & about in #Oxford.

Not to ‘audit, engage’ as I did in city centre management days there, but just to walk-see out of interest.

🛌 What was #retail repurposed to hotel;

  • Retail & services (uppers) converted to office;
  • Retail switch to #hospitality;

📚 And among all the change, for the book lovers in the pictured case, one of many examples here of enduring retail.

If you had walked and logged your town or city centre two years ago and checked in again this week, what differences have you seen…?

🤔 For the better or…?

It’d be great to hear…

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Go Aberdeen…!

An exciting and inspiring update this week from the tackling #highstreet vacancy-focused initiative on Union Street, Aberdeen.

💡 It’s a brilliant illustration of what can be achieved when a place – #property agents, landlords, businesses, community, council, BID, chamber – work together on this…

📉 …and hopefully will convince more places that empty units in your town and city centre are not a given, that you can reduce those numbers and significantly so – halved inside 18 months in this case – even if the headline vacancy rate is 25% at the outset…!

If you’ve not seen yet, here’s the main points of the latest, but do check it out in full.

“Today we have launched a nationwide marketing campaign designed to inspire and attract exciting businesses from all over the UK to our famous Granite Mile.

💻 The brand new website has all you need to know about the campaign, including:

  • A one-stop shop for all of Union Street’s vacant units, including clever AI renderings to showcase how these units could look for new tenants;
  • Details of all of the benefits accessible by taking on a vacant unit.”

“Since launching Our Union Street in March 2023, we have helped to dramatically reduce the vacant units on the street from 52 to under 30. This new campaign is designed to bring that number down further as we work together to rejuvinate our much-loved city centre.”

Go Aberdeen…! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

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Out & about in Banbury…

Never go back.

It’s a saying I think. And something everyone will have their own view of.

🤔 In #highstreet #placemaking and especially tackling vacancy, it’s always a good thing. To go back and see what’s changed and changing (and what’s not).

So to Banbury, a place I was part of a part-time #townteam (2014-18), and tho only to walk-see and not ‘audit, engage’ now, there’s lots to learn and consider.

💡 Questions like how many of our typical #TheVacantShopsAcademy ‘next steps’ suggestions for places that we are commissioned in might be on the table here…?

  • building an inclusive, diverse, proactive, tackling vacancy-focused ‘place partnership’;
  • upper floors ‘audit’;

🛍️ multi-unit #popupshop project;

  • potential for arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing as go-to new occupier targets;

🥬 indoor #market.

And more…?

If your place has too many empties, especially if that’s mid / high teens or even more than 20% of the total or the sqft tally, it’s a list (along with the other 15 or so elements on it) that’s well worth considering…!

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What would you put in that vacant unit…?

What type of businesses would you most like to see take on vacant units in your town centre…?

🤔 It’s a question we ask a lot on #TheVacantShopsAcademy commissions because it’s important.

What would your residents ask for and support. What might existing businesses value most as neighbours.

🛍️ Answers we’ve had of late include: “a comic shop”, “somewhere to buy clothes”, “a replacement butcher”, “a baker and another bookstore.”

It’s important because it emphasises a key point of our ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach. The idea is first that the place chooses what would add to the mix, but also goes out and tries to recruit those businesses or organisations (because your ideal might not be #retail or #hospitality, it could be arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing).

🧶 It means seeing if a #market stall holder wants a shop unit of their own, or there’s an online-only trader ready for the #highstreet or a business in a neighbouring town looking to expand, or you feature on a national brand’s #property requirement list.

🤳🏽 So, think about the vacant units in your town centre. What would you most like to see fill them….? What would be a fit for the space and your place. It’d be great to hear…!

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Not tackling vacancy…? Why…?

🤔 So why – I was asked this week – are more places not working on reducing the number of empty shops they have…? Varying reasons.

  • Other priorities;
  • Lack of capacity, skills, resources, funding;

💷 Preference for the ‘masterplanning’ route or focusing on a few ‘big ticket’ projects hoping they will fix the whole vacancy issue;

  • Pigeon-holing dealing with empty units as ‘just an agents-landlords thing’, or thinking that ‘death of the #highstreet’ means there’s no demand for empty units;
  • Lack of belief that the council or BID can make a difference on this.

Or some combo of all those.

It’s why the story of Union Street, Aberdeen, where agents, landlords, businesses, community, council, BID and others are successfully tackling its vacancy challenge together, is so powerful.

📉 It tells us that you can have a headline vacancy rate significantly above 20% and drop it into the mid-teens.

Does your place need to do the same…?

Let us know…

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Halving your vacancy rate…?

There’s a really striking #highstreet statistic in the latest update about Union Street, Aberdeen.

📉 It says that the headline vacancy number there which had empty units totalling in the mid-40s at the end of 2022 is now in the 30s and potentially into the 20s – halved…? – by the end of this letting season.

This at a time when nationally the rate is stuck (at around 14%).

So why is Aberdeen seeing such a dramatic drop…?

Regular readers will know that since our Wantage town team project started in 2013 and empty units number reduced from 23 to 3 in 18 months, I’ve increasingly strongly believed that vacancy is tackled quickest and most sustainably when the place – agents, landlords, businesses, community, council(s) and BID where there is one – work on this together.

Aberdeen has that…

🎤 The BID commissioned our ‘audit, engage’ tackling vacancy approach and, with partners, set up what proved to be a really powerful Union Street Summit;

  • The Council launched an Empty Shops Action Plan which included a significant tackling vacancy grant scheme, recently doubled in size to reflect uptake, and has just awarded funding from the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to support Aberdeen Inspired on an upper floors study to address another key issue;

🎨 Agents and landlords have re-focused on the challenges: getting more of the long-time empty #property onto market, investing, trying #popupshop options, selling to new owners with wider scope to move things forward;

🛍️ New #retail and #hospitality businesses have moved in, existing traders have expanded;

  • The Our Union Street group – having started with a huge #community engagement and involvement initiative – are innovating with a major incentives package to encourage lettings, a volunteer-led empty unit refresh project and support for would-be new occupiers by using tech to imagine how their unit could look (the focus of the latest update which is well worth a read);

🗞️ The local paper – which positively supported the Summit and the various steps since – has been running a series of upbeat articles on incoming and existing businesses on the street.

💡There’s more too, and it’s all making Aberdeen a beacon…

..an illustration that vacancy is not something we need be stuck with, that we know how to tackle it. Seriously, we do.

Hopefully it’s the clearest of messages to other places with headline vacancy rates in the 20 per cents and high teens.

If that’s your place, do please get in touch…!

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