How to reclaim the empty shops on your local high street

A pioneering network has a toolkit for turning the nation's decrepit private spaces into public places

Tired of looking at slowly decaying vacant shop fronts on your local high street? Why not give the landlord a call and see if you can turn it into a low cost opportunity to set up a business, or use it as a base for a local arts group?

A growing number of grassroots organisations are doing just that: bringing disused buildings back into circulation with innovative community-based projects that are evolving beyond the traditional temporary exhibition within an arts scene.

Take the picturesque church of St Mary de Haura which overlooks Shoreham-by-Sea, a small town on the edge of the Brighton conurbation. It's been in constant use for over 900 years. The tower and transept are part of the original 12th Century building, and babies are still baptised in the Norman font today.

Just over the road, St Mary's owns a building which tells a much more modern tale of occupation. Once the church hall then split into shops, one of the four units has been empty for a decade and in a closed up cafe there's a handwritten sign advertising specials for Father's Day 2007.

St Mary's has a buyer for the building, who wants to redevelop it. But a drawn out planning application has stalled completion of the sale for four years. In the meantime, paint peeled, the garden overgrew and rubbish piled up outside.

Open for business

It's a familiar, and unpleasant, sight. According to the latest figures from the Local Data Company, 13 per cent of shop premises in UK town centres are now vacant. Earlier in the year, analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers warned that around one fifth may never re-open.

One of the units in Shoreham has been reclaimed from dereliction by the Worthing-based Empty Shops Network (ESN). It moved in and opened up an art gallery and studio, called Agora, in March. Volunteers cleaned up the front and back of the building, repainted it and tidied up the garden too.

Dan Thompson, founder of ESN, invites local community groups and artists to use Agora free of charge. As well as exhibitions, it's been a venue for photography lessons and a 'skills swap' day. Thompson believes that waiting for new shops to move into old buildings simply isn't going to work.

'88million square metres of extra retail space has been built in the last 15-20 years, so we have more shops than we've ever had,' he says, 'That coincides with the rise in online shopping which means that we have less need for the space than ever.'

ESN is the best known of a number of groups which re-use vacant premises. Others include Brent's Wasted Spaces and Durham's Empty

Funding change

Thompson has been organising installations and happenings in empty shops for over a decade, helping others to do the same.
'I got more and more enquiries coming in through my website,' he says, 'I realised I could either reply to each one individually or set up a network where we all talk to each other.

'Early on we got a couple of phone calls from a civil servant at Communities and Local Government,' he continues, 'We talked him through a couple of examples we had, and he came back with another phone call to ask how government could support this kind of work. The suggestions from that call formed the basis of the policy that Hazel Blears put forward and got £5m of government backing.'

The money from central government was distributed as payments of £52,000 to the 107 councils with the highest number of vacant premises, but spending it has proved difficult. In Gloucester, just five grants for small businesses and start-ups have been approved since February.

Lynda Spain is the Regeneration Project Manager at Adur District Council and has been working with ESN since it began.

'Councils need to start trusting their external partners to deliver on their behalf,' Spain says, 'With less staff and financial resources available in-house, we need to foster positive partnerships with those in the community who are experts in their field. Why try and do something yourself when there is someone in the community who can do it better and faster?'

Art for good

Although some of ESN's work is grant-supported, much is self sufficient. The organisation is not, Thompson is keen to point out, a charity.

'We get a lot of people asking "are you squatting?"' he says, 'Why would we squat when all I have to do is ask somebody and they'll give me the keys legitimately? While it has got that punky, hippy ethos behind it, the emphasis is on doing it professionally. I expect the spaces that carry our name to look good.'

Hi most successful project, a six week indoor market in an a carpet warehouse, attracted 12,000 visitors.

As an artist, Thompson favours temporary installations and says his ideal project would be completed within a day. Increasingly, though, many are turning into long term undertakings. In Shoreham, Agora has just renewed its lease for a second six month tenancy, and Coventry City Council has been working with ESN to use empty lots in City Arcade for exhibitions, a theatre and a creche, which may form the basis of a new cultural quarter for the town.

Thompson says that the best empty shops projects are low cost and experimental, don't compete with existing businesses and add local or creative flair. They offer local entrepreneurs and artists a place to try out new ideas without the financial commitment of a start-up. Saltair's clothing and jewellery boutique The House of Rose and Brown grew out of one such an experiment.

The voluntary, activist nature of empty shop work invites comparison to a familiar government soundbite.

'As far as I'm concerned,' Thompson concludes, 'We are the Big Society, and we've been doing it for ten years. If Big Society is about local communities taking ownership and doing things for themselves, and is about delivering local services, locally, by local people for local people. We are it. And we're doing it at a far lower cost than government or big organisations are used to doing it for.'



How to start your own empty shop

The key to a successful empty shop project, says Dan Thompson, is to have a good idea. 'Too many people start with 'there's an empty shop, what shall I do with it?' he says.

In over a decade, Thompson claims never to have been turned down by a landlord. Sell the benefits of the project, he says: occupied shops attract attention from buyers, are kept clean and less likely to be vandalised and by supporting a charity or small business the owner can get substantial rate rebates..

'We've even seen cases where the landlord can save £50,000 a year, and they've given half the money away to someone else to run an activity in their space,' Thompson claims, 'They can bring a charity infor £25,000 and still save £25,000 a year.'

Further information: The Empty Shops Network

Adam Oxford is a freelance journalist


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