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What to do with empty shops?

28 February 09 08:15 GMT

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Empty shops signal a local economy in decline, become hotspots for anti-social behaviour and drag down the whole feel of an area, say local council chiefs.

And the problem looks set to get worse.

A new survey from the the Local Government Association (LGA) says four out of five councils in England have reported an increase in empty premises as the recession takes hold.

The LGA wants action to stop high streets becoming "ghost towns" - but what can be done?

The town of Redcar in Cleveland provides a glimpse of the looming retail nightmare.

Of the 50 or so shops on the High Street, at least 10 have shut down.

A former McDonalds restaurant is sealed from top to bottom with heavy black-painted boards.

Next door stands an empty former card shop with a broken window. And a little further along another ex-shop. This one used to sell shoes.

Across the road are more derelict shop fronts and a former Woolworths.

Des Heavyside, a partner in Hallmark jewellers in the High Street, says: "It's depressing. Every day somebody pops into the shop and says 'have you heard so-and-so's closing down?'

"And it affects our business too. The fewer the shops, the fewer number of customers in the High Street."

Redcar currently has a "retail vacancy rate" of nearly 14% - very close to what experts predict will be the average across the UK by the end of this year.

That translates into 135,000 empty shops across the UK - the highest number of retail vacancies since records began, according to a recent report by marketing research firm Experian.

Even in relatively prosperous areas, there are now visible signs that the shopping downturn is starting to bite.

Shopkeeper Vera Raphael says two shops in her upmarket Chiswick street shut down last month.

The owner of the 2B and Company fashion shop says: "People are much more cautious - as soon as they come into the shop you can see that they aren't going to buy anything."

For those who manage to hang onto their jobs, the changing face of Britain's high streets over the next year may the most visible sign the economy is in deep trouble.

Experts say shoppers should prepare themselves for a high street where the dominant colour is red: as in posters with big red letters advertising year-round sales and many more "For Lease" signs.

Retail analysts like Experian's Jonathan De Mello say this gloomy picture will persist for at least the next year - which means many shops are likely to stay empty for a long time to come.

He sees no prospect of the retail sector's equivalent of the seventh cavalry - the tide of coffee shops and mobile phone stores that colonised Britain's high streets after the last recession.

"There are no new retail formats on the horizon that we can see," he says.

For Neil Saunders of Verdict Research, a retail slump was pre-ordained.

He points to the estimated 88 million extra square feet of retail space that has mushroomed over the past 20 years: "That number of shops was fine during the boom times," he says.

"But once recession begins, that space just doesn't work any more."

The massive growth of internet shopping has also ramped up the pressure for the UK's already-beleaguered shopkeepers.

But amidst all the gloom, some ideas are emerging about how to make more creative use of the "dead spaces" in Britain's high streets.

They are aimed at reversing the "cycle of decline" started when a shop closes down and blights its neighbours.

Ted Cantle of the Institute of Community Cohesion wants empty shops to be transformed into social amenities.

He has called for the 800 former Woolworths stores - many of them large and in prime city centre locations - to be turned into "modern market halls", owned and controlled locally.

The first occupants, he suggested in a recent letter to the Times, could be local farmers who currently sell their produce on windswept car parks.

"They could share refrigeration, storage, cash handling and marketing, gaining a prominent foothold in the high street," he wrote, describing the idea as a "once in a generation" opportunity.

"We have to reconnect local people with their local high streets, which are key focal points of communities," he says.

"I am calling for a bit of imagination in the way we make the best of this recession."

That imagination is already being harnessed in certain cities.

Art entrepreneur Julian Monaghan regularly stages "Guerrilla Galleries" in vacant shops in and around Bristol - renting a unit for a short period to stage a graffiti art exhibition.

"We move in, we paint the walls, and try and create a bit of a buzz," he says.

"We get people coming in and saying how much it has lifted the area."

He is not alone - artists in nearby Bath and in London have adopted the same strategy.

And retailers can feel the benefits too, according to Mark Simmons of Hartlepool Museums.

New powers

He helped to launch the council-sponsored Curiosity Shop - a travelling museum operating out of vacant shops in town centres across the Tees Valley - including Redcar.

In just 12 days, 23,000 people visited the Redcar unit.

"Because more people were attracted to the area, local traders reported a 'massive' increase in customer footfall," says Mr Simmons.

The idea of turning empty shops into sites for community projects is an idea whose time has come, says the LGA.

It wants new powers to allow councils to take over shops once they have been vacant for three months.

But as businessman Des Heavyside surveys the blighted High Street outside his Redcar jewellers, such initiatives - although welcome - do not get to the root of his problems.

"First and foremost we need help with our costs if we are to continue as a business.

"That means lower rents from our landlords and lower business rates from the local council."

Additional reporting by Anna Lee

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