Do we need to build more #highstreet shops…?

… or at least create more spaces for them.🛍️

And do we need re-adjust the regulations to help #retail…?

No wait. Before you start to wonder if I’ve had too much of the holiday rum & raisin ice cream🍦

The questions are sparked by a series of comments from #property and #placemaking colleagues which I’ve weaved into a narrative, so thank you to all of them for the inspiration. I have tho taken out location mentions to focus just on the message, but it’s important to emphasise the potential case being made here only applies to some places, not everywhere.


🔑 “One challenge is that we do really have enough #hospitality venues now, so there’s a need to try and encourage actual shops – which can be hard in a small but expensive city…creating affordable units in suitable sizes is key.”

We “need to try and encourage actual shops”, and it’s not the only time I’ve heard that this week.

But why…? Here’s a retailer’s agent perspective…

💷 “F&B brands paying high rents and offering a long term commitment etc. We can’t get anywhere near what these guys offer.”

And that’s backed up by two more comments, one that suggests part of the issue is the change of use class regulation which tipped shops into a much bigger group of use types than before…

🍟 “The past couple of years have seen significant demand from QSR (quick service restaurant) operators for prime High Streets, following changes to planning rules in 2020, whereby they can acquire units previously unattainable under the old use classes.”

So partly regulation, but maybe also this helps explain the lesser share going to new shops…

⚖️ “I think it’s more we are not really seeing the enquiries. Perhaps the demand isn’t there in all centres. In an ideal world a bit of balance would really help our centres thrive. Of course we don’t live in that ideal world.”

And if we are to try adjust that balance, here’s more on the how:

🧵“Businesses need to work with Councils, landlords and law makers to bring empty units back into use. Subdivision is going to be crucial in creating units of a size that independent businesses can and will be able to rent.”

Interesting, huh.

So back to the questions: Are there really brand and #indie retail businesses keen to get spaces that can’t…? Does that matter…? Is it just how competition works…? Or are policy change and an adjusted approach needed…? 🪜

🤔 It’d be great to hear what you think…!

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Something’s happening somewhere…

“Our town has a third fewer vacancies than it did in the spring.”

“Wow. Actually, so has ours…!”

What about yours…? 🤔

Just two towns reflecting on how the numbers have changed between the dates of our #TheVacantShopsAcademy walk-see in late spring and a summer return visit.

Here are those numbers.

🧮 “11 of the initial ‘35’ (18.4%) visibly vacant are now listed as let, 4 more as ‘under offer’ and one other not currently being marketed due to landlord development or refurb works.”

📉”10 of the initial ‘29’ (16.3%) visibly vacant are now listed as let, 2 more as ‘under offer’ and a further 4 not currently being marketed due to landlord development or refurb works.”

As I say just two towns – but this is not the first time we’ve seen a very different picture after the ‘audit, engage’ stage of our approach to tackling #highstreet empty shops issues.

🔮 And it changes things. With a vacancy rate approaching 20% you might be thinking demolish, re-purpose, convert to resi, or worrying about more of your town centre’s traders leaving at lease expiry.

Instead the focus might be trying to add to the mix when it comes to #property lettings in the remaining empties, checking whether there’s un- and under used space on upper floors you could productively bring back, splitting larger units to better fit interest from #indie businesses, maybe even building new ones.

As I always say, it’s challenging, in some places especially so, but something’s happening somewhere. The numbers are telling us that…!

What do yours say…?

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Aaaaaarrrrrggggh…! 🤬

#placemaking friends had to endure a bit of a ranting me this week as (yet) another national ‘death of the #highstreet’ headline disrupted one of my timelines.

It was especially maddening because I read it while I was in Sunderland on what was an enjoyable, insightful and encouraging out & about for #TheVacantShopsAcademy.

What I found – and not for the first time on recent trips around – was new openings, fresh investment and promising pipelines along with, and really importantly, proactive place partnerships: good people, working hard, together, to make a difference.

🔦 I know, as one LinkedIn friend kindly put it in a call this week, that I’ve become a bit of a torchbearer for the positive…

…but I just cannot see how continually talking down our town and city centres and their prospects ever helps.

For sure it remains challenging out there, yes we need policy and regulations change, funding support and more capacity. But equally crucial is confidence and investment and glooming isn’t that, doesn’t help…!

Or is it just me…?

📸 Anyway, thank you Sunderland old and repurposed, new, upcoming and maybe next…!

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Are we missing a #highstreet story here…?

🔑 New openings, fresh investment, promising pipeline.

I ask having been out & about for #TheVacantShopsAcademy in another location – the second in a few weeks – where the headline ‘visibly vacant’ number now looks very different having run ‘audit, engage’ with #property agents to establish the actual status and backstory of those units that had appeared empty when we visited in late spring.

We’ll crunch and share those numbers in the week, but as the images show, several of them have new #retail or #hospitality occupiers already open and more have readying work underway.

For sure things remain challenging. A major brand in administration is significant and on behalf of the towns that have them, their regular customers and, importantly, all their staff, we join #placemaking colleagues in hoping for a positive outcome.

But an out & about perception, and from one or two of our locations now the data also, is telling us something different may be happening, in some places.

🤔 Is that just me…? Are colleagues finding similar…? Do let us know…

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Business Rates Avoidance and Evasion: a consultation

Are flaws in the business rates reliefs system contributing to #highstreet units staying vacant longer than needs be…?

What changes would #placemaking and #property colleagues like to see based on your learning on the ground…?

🤔 The government has a consultation underway called “Business Rates Avoidance and Evasion”, based on this statement:

“…there is a small minority who seek to exploit the business rates system, either through false reporting, or through contrived means which circumvent the spirit and intention of the law.”

📦 Has the consultation captured all the potential workarounds you’ve seen…?

🧹 Is there a risk of sweeping some valuable elements of the reliefs and exemptions away, in the determination to stop mis-uses…?


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Thought it might be of interest to share a digest of some of the emails we’ve had from #highstreet #property agents in the last week.

“Hi Iain we sold the property to an owner occupier a few months ago and they opened their new shop last week.”

“17 is now let, a new Tenant has moved in.”
“5/7 is also let.”

“This unit is presently vacant and available to let but we have had a number of viewings recently and so hopefully it will not be for too much longer.”

As ever this is not to deny it’s challenging out there. It is. Especially in some locations.

But we’re in another period where national brands in difficulty are dominating the headlines and potentially creating the impression among readers, listeners and viewers that the vacancy news in our town and city centres is only going one way.

A long-time issue for us is that new openings – even by chain concerns – tend to be on a one-by-one basis. Lettings to #indie #retail, #hospitality or services businesses are the same, so neither make media impact. Requirement lists of target towns for national brands barely ever make the mainstream news.

It’s why we believe it’s sooooo important that places – council(s) and BIDs where there is one, civic societies, chambers of commerce and others – take charge of their vacancy numbers and promote new arrivals.

It may be that you don’t have any of the businesses making the headlines in your place. Even if you do and they close that may be outnumbered by new openings, including the unit they were in being snapped up quickly by another brand.

‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’. The picture you get may be very different…!

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Is that ‘empty’ shop actually vacant…? Or…?

As promised, here’s an early data output from one of the locations we’re running ‘audit, engage’ as part of a tackling empty #highstreet shops issues project which, hopefully, you’ll find is food for thought…

Our town centre walk-see there in the spring showed 29 visibly vacant units. But checking in with #property agents and landlords produced – not for the first time in our #TheVacantShopsAcademy work – a very different picture.

  • Ten of the units are now let. Ten…!
  • Another two are under offer.
  • A further four are not proactively being marketed currently because of refurbishment works.

True, units in the last two categories might come back onto the market. But still, the number of ‘empty & available’ units is HALF, maybe even a third of the headline vacancy rate. A huge difference in terms of deciding ‘next steps’ policy.

This is the second location in which we’ve reported a significant gap between the two numbers, and again illustrates why we’re so keen for places – whether that be council(s) and / or BID where there is one – to take charge of their vacancy numbers, and to work with agents, landlords, businesses and their community to help overcome barriers to getting empty units back into use.

You can make a difference. And the risk of taking policy or project initiatives without knowing the backstory of these units is that you might do the wrong thing – including taking out commercial space when actually you could use more…!

We’re always happy to talk places thru our ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach if vacancy is an issue for you…?

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Evolving not…? Part 2

So here’s some #highstreet #property stories you may not be seeing in the headlines…?

  • National #retail brands finding it difficult to secure new stores because of limited options in target towns and city centres;
  • Commercial agents running a bidding process on properties because of the level of interest;
  • The competitive rush we’re seeing to snap up the units left behind by departing mid-sized chains;
  • Landlords building new small units to meet demand;
  • Independent #hospitality business owners scoping towns to expand into, based on the success of their first or second.

As ever none of this is to deny that it’s challenging in our town and city centres. We’re still losing businesses that would stay if we were in a stronger situation, and we for sure need a range of policy adjustments from government.

But in their different ways these ‘audit, engage’ backstories suggest the vacancy picture is more complex than saying ‘shops’ are empty because no-one wants them.

And that’s before we get onto the units it’s assumed are vacant due to lack of interest, but are actually staying that way longer than needs be because of what we call ‘supply-side’ factors. The ones we could let if we find ways to overcome the barriers…

Maybe worth remembering when next you read or have shared on your timeline another gloomster ‘death of the high street’ narrative…?

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Evolving not…?

“Report confirms stats on death of the high street”, ran the headline.

One of a frustrating timelines-filling set this week.

Thing is tho the stats it set out do nothing of the sort…!

We’ve been trying to unravel from quite sparse detail on the methodology what they do tell us.

We think that the given figure of 6,000 ‘#retail outlets’ lost in 5 years is the net number of closures across 650 ‘shopping locations’.

The assumption from reading it (and maybe of those sharing) is that this is about shops and the #highstreet.

But is it…? If it’s actually about ‘shopping locations’ that includes retail parks and shopping centres so the number of high streets included is smaller. There’s therefore a chance that your town centre isn’t covered at all. What’s more, the closures are not all what you and I call shops. Places that sell stuff. If they’re ‘outlets in retail locations’ that might have been garages or salons or tattoo parlours or bookies or banks…?

Either way, assuming we’ve understood the data and got the maths right: 6000 closures across 650 locations in 5 years is an average of 2 closures per place per year.

Headline: “Two city centre shops closed this year.” I don’t think so.

But there’s another thing from #TheVacantShopsAcademy work on tackling empty shops issues: the method behind these stats. If you count closures by visiting a town and noting the visibly empty units at that time, you might well include some that aren’t vacant at all.

One of the 19 locations we’ve audited had 27 visibly ‘vacant’ units. But when we ‘engage’ with agents to check the status of those empties and take off any that are let or near to, the figure came down…

…to 9: ONE THIRD of the headline number. A huge difference. We’ll shortly publish data for another town and expect that’ll show similar.

None of this is to say things aren’t still challenging. They are, in some places especially so.

But fixing them requires inward investment and confidence so talking down our places doesn’t help.

Is it time to rest the gloomster strategy in favour of something more positive. Call for the changes we need by all means, but as an argument for building on strengths and success.

It’s surely worth a try.

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So what’s all this got to do with empty shops then…?

More than half the ‘next steps’ narrative suggestions in our #TheVacantShopsAcademy reports for places we’re supporting to tackle vacancy are less directly about the empties themselves and more around wider #highstreet #placemaking.

Very often that’s included ways to bring more arts & crafts, creative, culture and community into the town or city centre, including popupshop / meanwhile.. use and, importantly, facilitating longer term stays.

For places that have little or none, we’re also encouraging them to look at the increasingly strong set of examples around the country of stunning #streetart.

Why…? Well take the first example in this set from New Brighton, Wirral we saw out & about with Institute of Place Management team mates. It’s on the gable end of a row of terraced houses you’d otherwise have walked past especially on a wet Wednesday. Instead we stopped and talked about its ‘why and how’ and photographed it and shared it across social media, and for sure someone who hadn’t planned to will now visit the town to see it.

But it’s more than that. It would’ve taken imagination and creativity, and permissions and positive, inclusive partnership working and funding and more. All among the things that we need to make our places the best they can be.

It might not be murals in your case, tho I 💯 think you might well go that route, but if you’ve all the above elements working in your place it will be stronger, and likely you’ll be reducing vacancy if that’s an issue for you too…!

Thanks to Daniel Davies, Jayne Casey and friends for taking the time to show us round and talk thru your awesome, inspiring, ongoing story…!

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