Councils can help steer their high streets and town centres towards more mixed-use futures.
High streets and town centres are undeniably on the frontline of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restrictions have explicitly closed non-essential retail, hospitality venues, personal care businesses, entertainment and cultural venues – all those places that line our streets and centres. When this is combined with long-term trends, such as increasing online sales, it’s unsurprising that, in November 2020, the Local Data Company predicted that there could be 15,000 additional empty high street units in Britain.
In this context, local authorities should find work recently commissioned by the LGA into ‘Good practice for dealing with empty shops’ helpful.
This document draws together guidance on the powers that authorities have to address vacant premises, as well as national best-practice examples and overarching conclusions. It seeks to equip elected members and local authority officers with a range of tactics and tools that can be deployed in the short term and over longer timescales to make a difference.
The case studies range from fast and responsive actions in Bath, introducing local art commissions into the windows of empty shops, to substantial investments in adaptive re-use of former department stores as vibrant and diverse hubs for health in Warrington and tech enterprise in Sheffield.
Across all the examples, a clear lesson is the importance of working within a wider strategic framework.
High levels of town centre vacancy are rarely a single-issue problem, and are more likely to be symptomatic of multiple challenges faced by a town centre, such as poor accessibility or dilapidated buildings, alongside changing consumer behaviour.
Actions to tackle empty shops should, therefore, be component parts of multi-layered town centre or high street strategies if they are to have long-term impact. In this sense, a clear policy context helps to steer action and galvanise stakeholder support.
The actions highlighted in the research also provide reasons to be optimistic.
As local authorities take a key role in steering their high streets and town centres towards more mixed-use futures that are less retail-dependent, there are opportunities for innovation and delivery of public good that may not previously have been possible on such a scale.
For example, programmes such as the Stockton Enterprise Exchange have adapted vacant town centre floorspace to support businesses and enterprise that may not otherwise have had the opportunities – in this case, 85 businesses since its opening in 2012.
Elsewhere, we have seen charitable trusts established to safeguard at-risk heritage (Tyne and Wear), or school students establishing their own, sustainable, retro clothes business (Telford & Wrekin).
Through adaptive and agile responses to changing high street fortunes, local authorities can pl-ay a key role, not only in addressing empty retail units, but also in ensuring that meaningful social value can be delivered for the communities they serve.
High streets are notoriously difficult contexts in which to effect change, with multiple stakeholders and interests that cross local authority jurisdictions and departmental divides.
By learning from others who have taken a wide range of approaches to addressing the multifaceted issue of empty shops, the intention is that this guidance will provide a resource that can support action at all scales, from villages to major metropolitan centres.