Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Tuesday, 14 April 2009 14:34 UK

New plans to stop 'ghost towns'

Some of the 'ghost shops' in Stockport which would be transformed

Community groups should use more empty shops as resources to help prevent town centres becoming ghost towns, the government says.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced measures to help groups turn shops into galleries or advice centres.

The scheme is being launched in Stockport, Greater Manchester, where the council is already using empty units for cultural pursuits.

Ms Blears is discussing the plans with the town's business leaders.

The seminar will also be attended by Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, councillors, landlords and town centre managers.

The package of measures includes £3m of funding, faster planning procedures and standard short-term leases.

Art displays are not the answer for empty shops
Stephen Robertson
British Retail Consortium

"If you're faced with boarded-up shops, it's a really depressing shopping experience," Ms Blears said.

"One of our ideas is to say on a temporary basis, can we get more community groups coming in, art galleries, rehearsal space for youngsters?"

Extra powers are to allow councils to take over premises left empty.

Stockport town centre, seven miles south of Manchester city centre, has not been immune to the recession.

Like many other towns, its main shopping street has an empty Woolworths store and a number of other units lying unused.

But a council spokesperson said the authority was already taking "proactive measures to support the town centre economy".

The dedicated town centre management team co-ordinates initiatives such as marketing and networking and events to attract new businesses and visitors to the area.

Orbital knitting

"In particular our popular events like Culturefeast in May are focusing on innovative ways to develop the cultural offer in the town centre through utilising empty units," the spokesperson added.

"Interesting uses to date include temporary art galleries, photographic studios, writers' workshop and performance space.

"Empty clothing units have been utilised as dance studios and space for giant orbital knitting groups.

"We will be looking for even more innovative new ways to ensure we make use of them."

Art 'not answer'

The government plans have not been welcomed by the British Retail Consortium, which said ministers should have done more to keep business in the shops in the first place.

Director general Stephen Robertson said: "Art displays are not the answer for empty shops.

"We agree that vacant premises blight town centres.

"But contriving schemes to fill them with other users is tackling the symptom while ignoring the cause."

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