Why filling your town centre empties can take time

Hi. I’m Iain Nicholson and I work in a number of towns in and around Oxfordshire, largely focused on helping to reduce the number of empty shops. Having enjoyed a visit to Wrexham last year and meeting Nigel and members of your volunteer team, and keeping in touch since via Wrexham Town Matters, I thought it might help to chip in some perspectives from our experiences.

The biggest thing we always say is not to believe that empty shops in your town centre means that there is no demand from anyone wanting a shop.

Our experience of tackling the issue of empty shops in a number of towns now is that the main challenge is not demand, but what we call ‘supply-side’ factors.

Here’s some, and if you take a detailed look at the empty units you have in Wrexham town centre, chances are their back story will include some or more of the following. A common factor to many of these is where the demand is. Nationally you’ll know from what you read and hear that a number of the ‘high street’ shop names we know are finding it tougher, and few are looking to take on new units – tho, thankfully, some are. The demand – and it’s the case in the towns we’re working too – is from people looking to start their own, independent shop. But the units we have are – in many cases – not suitable.

  • The unit is the ‘wrong’ size – indies typically look to take a unit of no more than 800sqft and the majority for something much smaller. Part of our work has been to try to find ways to get large units split or to promote sharing between a number of indies.
  • The unit has the wrong layout – what was it before? We’re grappling in one town with units that were nightclubs and bars and so expensive to re-work for different uses today.
  • It’s in the wrong place – indies tend to like to cluster with other similar sized businesses and tend to be against a slot amongst a group of nationals or non-shop uses.
  • The landlord – often an absentee i.e. based away from the town – is holding the building as a long-term asset and isn’t so worried about rent. If the building is listed they’ll also not be paying business rates so another lever to getting it occupied is missing.
  • The unit is in a poor way and needs a lot of investment to get right. In this situation there’s a standoff over who pays. The landlord is often less than keen, and an incoming tenant may not have the funds or cannot see a way to recoup the investment during their stay.
  • The unit is not marketed – look up. Any sign of an agent’s board? No. So how can a would-be occupier go about expressing an interest? All our towns have units like this, so an early task is to get them all on the market.
  • Comparative (shopping centre) rents – if the same landlord has a number of nearby units with all full, bar one, say, they’re reluctant to reduce the asking rent on the empty in case it impacts on discussions with their other tenants when it comes to rent review.
  • There’s a paying tenant – the unit may look empty, but we sometimes find that the outgoing tenant is still paying the rent (sometimes for many years to come) so the landlord is happy with the situation and not so fussed about getting the unit occupied.
  • Long leases – a major barrier for new indies is the landlord asking for a 3, 5 or 10-year lease. This is one big reason why we work pop up shop models in our towns, to give indies the opportunity to test the market without a long term initial commitment they may not be ready for.
  • Upstairs (residential or office) is paying the bills – where the landlord has had permission to convert upstairs to residential that can mean the bills for that unit are covered and there’s less interest in getting something done about the ground floor. At the same time there’s a plus for us in that getting an upstairs solution is often the key to getting the ground floor let (because few retailers today really want an upstairs as it’s little use for sales and just adds rent/business rates costs).
  • Last, but sometimes an issue, is the rent/business rates cost combination. There are still cases where the ask is too high for the current market and needs adjusting!

So quite a few factors to tackle!

Our approach is to do an audit, and one-by-one, to get to understand the story of each unit.

To finish on two pieces of good news. First, we’ve examples from our work where we’ve found a solution to each of the above. Second there is demand out there – as you’ve seen in Wrexham recently when a ‘popupshop’ model option was advertised on here. Wantage in Oxfordshire where the above pictures were taken in 2013 when our townteam project started, had 23 empties – around 12% of the total. In 18 months that was down to 3 empty units, and despite a few flurries we have the numbers in low single figures now (despite one or two long term units remaining a challenge!). So, the 4 pictured above now look like this…


…on a street that had 9 of the town’s then 23 empties and no shops – salons and takeaways and financial folk and an undertaker only. Now it has all the shops fully let and includes a bookshop, sports shop and toy shop!

Good luck!

There’s more on our town team work at http://prbi.co.u

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