Colliers International’s Nick Turk argues that radical treatments including cuts to business rates, shorter leases and encouragement of so called pop up traders could help save some of these distressed shops. But more fundamental solutions might need to be found for those premises where the economic recovery has arrived months, sometimes years, too late.
Press reports that the fast expanding seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare is currently home to no less than 65 empty shop premises will bring little cheer to traders, residents or visitors.
In fact, visitors to the town might find the high vacancy rate something of a surprise.
After all, Weston boasts one of the most vibrant townscapes in the whole of the South West. New homes are springing up along the eastern fringes and thriving business initiatives are pushing the town’s boundaries up to and beyond the key Junction 21 development zone.
The resort has transformed itself over the past thirty years, but not everybody has kept up with the pace of that development.
Weston’s traders and residents don’t need to be told, but it’s the old town, radiating out from the charming Victorian centre, that has suffered the most.
The majority of the 65 empty shops have fallen victim to a lethal combination of high business rates, awkward to operate Victorian buildings, increasingly strong competition from supermarkets and the rapid rise of online shopping.
Weston’s preponderance of Victorian buildings means the town is particularly vulnerable to out of town drift. Here, in the outskirts, businesses can operate from newer, bigger and easier to operate buildings offering free and easy parking.
Multiple ownership in town centres such as Weston-super-Mare is also a barrier to change and a major drag on new thinking. There are often a myriad of different landlords and competing interests to deal with not to mention any number of local trader and stakeholder organisations, not all of whom appear to be singing from the same hymn book.
Shopping is all about experience and engagement and a town centre which is tired and has a fractured ownership is difficult to move forward in a joined-up manner.
It’s not easy to identify any short term solution to this problem and as the local stakeholders have already pointed out, magic wands are in strictly short supply.
So what can we do to bring some – if not all – these premises back from the brink?
Colliers International has been doing its bit, supporting shopping centres in towns and cities across the West. We lobbied the Government to abandon its controversial decision to postpone the business rate revaluation from 2015 to 2017, arguing that business rates are already a make or break issue. We are also advising the Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce on ways of supporting our ailing town centres.
We believe local authorities – especially planners - can play their part by being as pro-active and flexible as possible when it comes to dealing with shops, shoppers and rapidly evolving shopping patterns.
The recovering economy will also play a part, boosting footfall and customer spending.
UK GDP is forecast to grow by a respectable 2.7 per cent this year – and set to pass the pre-recession peak in the second half of this year. Household consumption is expected to be the main driver of this growth and local traders could benefit as this feelgood factor helps see their business through another season.
But for many of the marginal premises the tide will not turn soon enough.
Some will fall by the wayside and it is imperative that we diversify the range of services and attractions that town centres provide, in addition to the range of shops, giving people more compelling reasons to visit.
Solutions vary from place to place but for the overwhelming majority a smaller retail core supplemented by improved leisure, residential and community use is likely.
Planners should be open to change the use of properties which are no longer fit for purpose.
This will require greater flexibility in the planning system to enable quick and easy change of use from redundant retail premises to more economically productive uses.
In the short term pop up shops can prove an effective stop gap measure – providing vibrant and eye-catching changes to the street scene in place of large numbers of boarded-up shop frontages.