New city council empty units initiative

Business and organisations from across Oxford are working with the City Council on an initiative to bring empty units back into use more quickly.

Representatives of more than 30 local business and organisations – including those with experience or interest in retail, food & beverage, culture, co-working and more – have been invited to put forward ideas for short term, ‘meanwhile use’ of empty units following a City Council-run event on the issue.

Attendees at the event were also asked to think about the potential for using buildings outside the city centre that are empty short term before work begins on development and estate regeneration projects.

The City Council has also written to a number of landlords and agents with city centre vacant units to ask if they’d consider ‘meanwhile use’ while work continues to get them let longer term. A number have already responded positively.

One aim of the project is for the City Council to act as a facilitator, connecting potential users like small or micro businesses, co-worker groups, cultural bodies, retailer collectives and others, with city centre landlords that have a temporarily empty unit.

It is hoped these short tenancies can act as a stepping stone, enabling groups to test out operating from a city centre location. By reducing the risk of a long contract they can test the success of a central location and may move to a longer tenancy, future pop-ups, a Gloucester Green stall, a Covered Market unit or a city centre property. The short-term leases also allow one-off residencies from cultural organisations or businesses to add to the vibrancy of the city centre, such as art exhibitions, theatre groups, or seasonal retail.

The aim is therefore both to fill temporarily empty units, and to help create opportunities for independent businesses and others in Oxford city centre.

The initiative is part of a wider Oxford City Council focus on working with landlords and agents to reduce the number of vacant city centre units. With Oxford’s retail centre bucking the national trend, with an increase in footfall and empty shops being filled, the City Council initiative aims to build on the current momentum.

While the UK High Street Index for footfall is down 2.6% year on year, Oxford has seen a rise of 4.1%

Shopping in Oxford has been strongly affected by a legacy of the opening of Westgate Oxford, which has resulted in an additional 85 retail units in the city centre compared with two years ago (from about 431 to 516), with a number of shops vacating ‘high street’ premises to relocate into the new development.

Despite the positive numbers, like all retail centres Oxford is dealing with the move to online shopping and the loss of big name retailers.

Oxford City Council has been working with other major retail property owners to identify steps to reduce the vacancy rate on retail units, and the increase in footfall shows that there is plenty of opportunity for bricks and mortar premises.

Last year the Council established the Oxford City Centre Taskforce – which includes city centre businesses, local authorities and landlords – to work in partnership to develop the city centre and increase economic prosperity.

The City Council has also worked closely with Jesus College on its redevelopment of Northgate House on Cornmarket Street, in particular advising on the provision of retail space. The £36million development will incorporate living, learning and retail space, and the design will improve the connection between Cornmarket and the Covered Market shopping areas.

Councillor Mary Clarkson, Cabinet Member for Culture and City Centre, said “We’ve been working hard with landlords to help fill vacant retail units, and we’re looking at a range of ways that we can keep our shopping areas vibrant and varied places to visit. We know that online shopping is changing the way people are using our high streets, and we’re working with landlords and businesses to help them change the way they fill the space and keep people coming back.”

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