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.

How Dot Dot Dot can bring value to your area: working with Soha in Henley-on-Thames

September 8, 2020

Mount View Court is an over-55s sheltered housing estate in Henley-on-Thames, made up of 50 flats in total. It is owned by Soha, a housing association working in South Oxfordshire.

Since October 2019, Dot Dot Dot has worked with Soha whilst the estate goes through a period of regeneration, to sensitively and effectively house guardians into empty properties. 

Social impact is at the core of what we do at Dot Dot Dot. We have extensive experience of working with housing associations to secure properties in complex sheltered housing environments, and we only house the most reliable guardians to ensure the transition is as mindful and secure as possible.

1. Staggered setup process

During this time of transition, we have worked closely with Soha to develop a management plan that not only provides security for their empty assets, but is also sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders. As a housing association, Soha’s first duty of care is to their residents, so it was important to minimise risk and take the needs of those who still reside in the estate into account. 

We identified three flats which would allow us to house guardians quickly and safely, for an initial three month pilot. The pilot has been a success, and we have an agreement in place with Soha to introduce more guardians in the coming weeks and months.

Using a staggered approach allowed us to secure the properties in a timely way, whilst also ensuring a smooth transition for the estate’s current residents.

2. Careful selection and introduction of guardians

When putting together a management plan for Mount View Court, it was important to Soha that the transition to housing property guardians caused as little disruption as possible. We take great pride in going above and beyond in the way we collaborate with our clients. As a result, we are responsive to their needs and the needs of the communities in which they work.

We worked with Soha to come up with a plan to introduce guardians in a sensitive and appropriate way – carefully selecting and inducting three guardians who understood the context of their new community. They embraced the need to be good neighbours and were willing to form relationships with existing residents. We tailored our vetting process to ensure that prospective guardians were interested in helping with activities like shopping, gardening and befriending older residents as part of their 16 hours of volunteering per month. The need for good neighbours became even more important in March when Covid-19 required that everyone stay at home. With isolation becoming a daily reality for many, the need for connection amongst neighbours and the power of volunteering has become more apparent than ever.

3. Supporting relationships with neighbours

Developing strong relationships is vital in any regeneration project where there are existing residents. We have open channels of communication with Soha and their residents to understand their needs and provide information about Dot Dot Dot and our guardians. 

We helped Soha to educate and inform their residents about Dot Dot Dot and our approach, and to assuage any concerns they may have. Before Covid-19, we had planned some meet ups to introduce guardians to the residents and allow a space for the guardians to meet their new community. Covid interrupted these plans, so we had to innovate in a way that would still foster a sense of community, despite the need for social distancing. We shared case studies of each guardian with information about their interests and volunteering, and included contact details should the residents need to contact our guardians. This meant the residents had a listening ear to call on or could ask for help with shopping.

4. Making a difference in the local area

Since January 2020, our Henley-on-Thames guardians have contributed a total of nearly 300 hours of volunteering, and have continued to do so during Covid-19. Without them, local charity shops would not have had extra staff, and local music events wouldn’t have been organised. Through encouraging volunteering in the Henley local area, we see the mutual benefits of community to both the guardians and the residents. Samuel, a Dot Dot Dot guardian living in Mount View Court, says: ‘It’s an incredible community to live in and I’m fortunate enough to be a part of it’.

Dot Dot Dot: property guardianship with purpose

The 16 hours of volunteering contributed by Dot Dot Dot guardians is central to our mission, but this is not the only additional value Dot Dot Dot can bring to an area. Careful management allows us to adjust to the needs of individual clients, projects and unique circumstances. Our agile and flexible approach has allowed us to collaborate with stakeholders despite the challenging circumstances presented by Covid-19. By building purpose into everything we do, we are unique in achieving additional value in the communities where we work.

If you would like to get in touch with us about securing your empty asset, you can request a callback here.

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