Silver linings on the high street

April 15, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

As Britain’s shops and pubs reopen from lockdown, the impact Covid-19 has had on commercial property is becoming impossible to miss as many units remain shuttered.  These closures are a tragedy for staff members, business owners, landlords and for shoppers who relied on local outlets.  The transition to new long-term uses will be painful, economically challenging and slow. 

However, empty space can be a magnet for creativity and innovation, and Dot Dot Dot is just one of many organisations offering ways to turn empty space from a problem to be solved into an opportunity to do something worthwhile. We hope we can be part of the solution as Britain builds back better.

As one door closes…

While life is returning to the high streets, many shopping parades are looking sadly empty. Household names like Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins have gone for good as bricks and mortar retailers, along with countless independent shops, while eight branches of John Lewis won’t be reopening.

In total, there was a net loss of nearly 10,000 chain stores across the country during 2020, according to research by PwC – a record decline since they started gathering this data.  PwC’s experts forecast that the picture is likely to get worse during 2021, because shops that were closed temporarily during lockdown weren’t included in the tallies, and only retailers with at least five branches were counted.

The worst-hit areas are central shopping streets in cities, as people worked from home and didn’t travel into city centres to shop – London, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle have had a higher-than-average number of closures.  Meanwhile, retail parks with large stores and plenty of parking did better, as did small town centres closer to people’s homes – places like Harlow, Eastbourne and Welwyn Garden City have lost fewer shops.

Many shops that remain in business are struggling to pay the rent for their spaces.  Land Securities, one of the UK’s largest commercial landlords, collected only £2m of the £7m they were owed in March by London retailers according to a report in the Financial Times, while outside London its retail tenants paid £5m of the £13m owed.  A ban on evicting commercial tenants put in place by the government will end on June 30th, so more shops may face closure at that point.

This is terrible news for the 180,000 retail workers who have lost their jobs.  The difficulties ripple out – for example, sellers of The Big Issue are finding that the loss of footfall at previously reliable pitches is a challenge.

…Another one opens

While no one would wish for this disruption and its impact on individuals and the economy, many of the changes caused by the pandemic are accelerations of pre-existing processes, such as the shift to online shopping. 

Some kinds of shops are likely to do well over the coming years – new coffee shops and takeaways are opening, according to the PwC research.  The British Heart Foundation reported a record day of trading when stores reopened on Monday, selling £1m worth of goods, and showing that eBay is no substitute for browsing second-hand treasures in real life. 

Despite these pockets of success, it seems inevitable that high streets as a whole will need to be reshaped.  Meanwhile approaches can ease that process and contribute to designing the future.  Empty buildings are a problem for everyone – most immediately for their owners, who have to pay tax on them despite earning no income, and who face the costs of dereliction or squatting.  But they’re also bad news for everyone else – a scattering of empty shops can make a street off-putting and unwelcoming, harming business for stores that remain and spoiling the experience for shoppers. 

Meanwhile uses solve these problems, while also creating opportunities for experimentation and entrepreneurship.  The Ebury Edge project run by Meanwhile Space CIC with Westminster City Council is a great example. Instead of an empty site waiting for a housing regeneration project, there is now a brightly-coloured, architect-designed set of offices and studios, plus a café run by Fat Macy’s, a social enterprise which creates opportunities to get into catering careers for young people who have experienced homelessness. 

Similarly, the London Borough of Croydon cooperated with a group of local artists and community members to create ‘Saffron Central’, where a previously empty site was planted with crocus sativus – the flower whose stamens are saffron.  This was done to remind residents that Croydon’s name derives from Anglo Saxon ‘Croh Denu’ meaning “Crocus Valley”, and to enable them to pick their own saffron – a spice that, weight for weight, is worth more than gold.

And housing association Poplar HARCA turned one of its empty shops at Chrisp Street Market into a pop-up radio studio to broadcast “Chrisp Street On Air”, a project that shared and amplified local voices and helped increase understanding of how different groups and individuals felt about their area and what they wanted for its future.

Projects like these – which treat their temporary nature as an opportunity to experiment rather than a constraint, and which can point the way to future uses – can help our high streets.  Commentators and think-tanks are suggesting that housing is what our town centres need, while others recommend night clubs or spaces for children to play.  It will take time to put these uses in place permanently – but we can get on with doing it on a temporary basis straight away, creating short-term opportunities, and in the process seeing what works and what doesn’t work. 

At Dot Dot Dot, we’ve been turning empty buildings into good homes that support residents to get involved and contribute locally for the past ten years, and we’re looking forward to working alongside our meanwhile and placemaking peers to breathe life back into the empty spaces left behind by lockdowns.

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