A National Highstreet Service…?

Could health & wellbeing be a new anchor for the #highstreet…?

It’s one of our list of ‘alternative uses’ to add to #retail, #hospitality and services that we encourage #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations to target as part of their tackling vacancy ‘next steps’.

🎨 The full list also features arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education. But maybe health & wellbeing has the most potential.

🩺 Health services can take on some of our bigger units, they work in shopping centre, including the often tricky upper floors, as well as on our streets, and importantly they look like a good covenant to landlords and already have professional #property teams so may not need the ‘place’ support and funding that some of the other uses do.

A recent post by the 2025 Group in Grimsby talked about “an additional 120,000 visitors to the town centre annually” with the opening of their Community Diagnostic Hub.

🗝️ This is just one of an increasing portfolio of examples we’re seeing with great work being done by architect colleagues and #health services management to make this happen.

It’d be great to hear case studies from places making progress on this…

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Empty buildings, alternative uses…

Arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing.

🔑 A list of ‘alternative uses’ that could occupy vacant #highstreet units alongside #retail, #hospitality, services and (hopefully more for upper floors) office or residential.

All of them feature in our ‘next steps’ narrative suggestions as potential targets for locations we’re working with #TheVacantShopsAcademy.

🤔 But how much of a part can they play…?

  • Might they be as significant as a potential new anchor is some places;

🏢 Are they candidates to take on large units or smaller ones. Could they take over several on one street or in a shopping centre;

  • Will they offer the covenant landlords are looking for;
  • Do they need extra support or funding to negotiate their way through the challenges of securing a space.

The answers are likely to vary by use type and with the places themselves.

🗣️ It’d be great to hear what #property colleagues think as well as those already making these uses a reality in our town and city centres.

📸 This theme was very much part of the conversation on an enjoyable and insightful out & about with #placemaking and #community friends in Swindon town centre, where you can see the contribution some of those uses are already making, and the kind of buildings that might be future options….!

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Academy locations taking ‘next steps’…

Three encouraging pieces of news this week from #highstreet locations we’re working with #TheVacantShopsAcademy.

First from Aberdeen where the city council has “committed a further £500,000 to the Union Street Empty Shops Grant Scheme – bringing the total investment up to £1 million – given the level of interest.”

🪜 “The initiative, which launched in July 2023, offers match-funded grants of up to £35,000 to new tenants or landlords to support physical works required for new uses of vacant units.”

A way for the place to help overcome a common barrier to letting vacant units – the often-seen impasse between landlords and would-be occupiers over who funds the cost of readying the unit and fit out – is a feature of the majority of our ‘next steps’ suggestions to locations we’re working with, and was one of the priority conclusions in our set for the BID here. So it’s good to see there’s been enough take up to warrant further investment.

📉 In the same report it was noted that “the number of vacant units on Union Street decreased from 47 in September 2022 to 37 in February 2024.”

This was clear from our recent visit to start another ‘next steps’ initiative – a study of upper floors use, barriers and options – and is great to see. As part of that project we’re re-running our vacancy ‘audit’ with early signs suggesting that headline number is dropping further.

🔑 The other cheering update was from Sunderland where we’ve been working with its BID on our tackling vacancy approach since last summer. They’ve confirmed plans to build on the work to date by “pushing forward with our #retail strategy using the insight that the vacant property ‘audit’ has provided…working with landlords and agents and Sunderland City Council to make sure we transform our city in a more sustainable way which complements the massive investment that’s taking place.”

11 years experience of empty shops projects has shown that where agents, landlords, businesses, community, councils and BID where there is one work together on this, vacancy reduces more quickly and sustainably and the mix of uses improves, so it’s brilliant to see the progress in Aberdeen and Sunderland and I hope they’ll be a beacon for more places to adopt the approach…!

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Every Single One.

Our approach to tackling #highstreet vacancy is to focus on each visibly empty unit in turn…

  • Is it genuinely empty & available;

💷 Is the previous occupier in administration or still paying rent;

  • Is a commercial #property agent marketing it;

🪜 Is it a demolition or refurb project;

  • Is it under offer;
  • Are upper floors an issue;
  • Is it a #popupshop or ‘meanwhile… use’ candidate;

🎨 Could arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing be part of the solution alongside #retail, #hospitality & services;

  • Or is the best we can do to hoard or vinyls it for now;

🗝️ Then, crucially, what are the barriers to it being let, how can they be overcome and what part can the ‘place’ – council(s), BID where there is one, businesses, community – play, alongside agents and landlords.

All our experience is that where this partnership is on the case, vacancy numbers reduce and the mix of uses improves more quickly and sustainably.

🤔 So what are the barriers for your empty units…? Do you have that partnership in place…? And what can it do to help…?

It’d be great to hear…

📸 Choice of images from an intriguing visit this week to the brilliant city of Sunderland where there’s always changes, investment and positive projects to check in on, and an amazing range of buildings to host the next new business or organisation occupier. Is that you…?

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Are there lights on…?

💡 If you wander your #highstreet in the early evening dusk and stay on later, are there signs on your upper floors of office teams at work or of town or city centre living…?

If not, is there un- and under-used space you could be making more of…?

🔐 If the answer’s yes, could it be resi, or workspace or #hospitality or an alternative use…? Creative, #community, leisure, education, health & wellbeing maybe…?

I ask after an insightful trip to the awesome city of Aberdeen to start the ‘audit, engage’ stage of our Union Street upper floors study with Aberdeen Inspired BID colleagues, thanks to funding support by Aberdeen City Council.

🤔 We learned a huge amount logging the upper floors, checking for lettings boards and especially by taking in some initial conversations with local architect colleagues.

🏢 It’s going to be fascinating to map what’s available there, explore potential use options, understand any barriers and start to map a strategic way forward.

Watch this (un- or under-used) space…!

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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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