Give empty high street retail units to new businesses for free!

New research from The Local Data Company shows that the number of empty shops on Britain’s high street are continuing to rise (with Nottingham being the worst performing city centre with more than 30% of its sites empty). Apparently the vacancy problems were caused by consumer spending falling back to 2002 levels and by retailers expanding into too many sites before the financial crisis.

This makes me ANGRY as it’s such a waste and makes our towns and cities looks awful, and does nothing to make them vibrant and successful places to live and work. It also doesn’t reveal the full story.

Walk down any high street in Britain’s towns and cities and you’ll see numerous empty retail units that have remained dormant (or will stay that way for months or even years at a time). Yet why should that be? There is no shortage of people wanting to start up in business but the big stumbling block is the astronomical business rates that landlords charge for properties and red tape caused by the local authorities.

Even in Newcastle upon Tyne I’ve seen small units costing upwards of £20,000 a year and that’s before staff wages, stock and other business costs have been taken into account. No wonder so many new businesses fail…

I think that local authorities should force landlords to reduce their business rates considerably to encourage new businesses to move in, or possibly issue something like a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) so that they can help stimulate economic growth in our towns and cities by either reducing rates or even giving them away rent-free for the first 12 months.

The benefits to such actions would include;

  • helping more new businesses get established, surviving beyond their first year so they can grow and provide more local jobs
  • filling the unsightly and depressing void left by empty retail units
  • putting more money back into the local economy as retailers purchase more stock from local suppliers, shoppers support local businesses and tourists buy things from the unique businesses available in our towns and cities that they can’t get anywhere else
  • it would also make local residents feel more proud of their towns and cities as there are fewer things more depressing than walking through a ghost town or a street that feels forgotten and unloved

A great example of where a local authority has given some empty retail units over to new businesses is the fantastic ‘Starter for Ten‘ project run by Gateshead Council. Originally conceived by design guru Wayne Hemingway MBE, this project has seen an empty furniture store in Gateshead high street turned into rent-free workspace for new creative businesses at ‘The Shed’.

I hope that more local authorities take note of what Gateshead council is doing here and look forward to the day when empty retail units on our high streets are a thing of the past. I’d also like to see Newcastle City Council go out of their way to help promote the High Bridge Quarter collective of independent retailers and the Made In Newcastle (MiN) collective find a suitable unit for their amazing art, craft and design products.

The video below is from an interview I did with Wayne Hemingway for Shell LiveWIRE at the Tate Liverpool in 2009. In it he tells how he took Red Or Dead from humble beginnings on a market stall in 1980 and turned it into an award-winning international fashion label, gives advice to creative businesses and explains why a recession can be a great time to start a business.

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