Current levels of empty retail premises are an issue of concern to policy makers and those responsible for the management of towns and cities in the UK. There are various reasons for such high levels of retail vacancy, but whatever the cause in particular locales and premises, the impact has undoubtedly been significant, and exacerbated in recent months by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A recent report by PwC (i) into store openings and closures indicates that 2021 is breaking records for all the wrong reasons. The report identifies that, so far in 2021, 17,532 chain store closures have occurred - an average of 48 closures per day. Furthermore, this year has witnessed a record low in new store openings, and this situation is predicted to get worse in the coming months.
Managing the implications of this for traditional urban retail destinations will, arguably, be an ever more important task for urban managers, and current strategies include, for example, promoting the re-use of such vacant retail space. In the UK, at the national level, there are initiatives to this end that have been in place for some time(ii) , and such initiatives provide a context for specific local level actions to promote the re-use of what Zeihl and Oβwald term ‘second hand spaces’ (iii) on a temporary basis through the concept of ‘pop-up’ activity. One aspect of this is pop-up retailing, defined in terms of a temporary retail-oriented setting designed to foster a direct customer-brand interaction for a limited period, is for either primarily transactional and/or promotional purposes (iv). The use of pop-up retailing has increased significantly, both by established brands (often for promotional purposes), and also by emergent entrepreneurs testing out new business concepts, with the industry now said to be worth more than £2 billion (v) according to Retail Gazette. Pop up potentially offers something different and eye-catching within urban retail destinations, but is it the solution to fill the increasing vacant spaces in town centres?
Temporary uses of urban space could be seen, according to Colomb (vi), as the “means to an end” in creating an image of a vibrant, creative city, rather than as a long-term solution to underlying structural problems. And now, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, a fine balance needs to be struck between temporary use and utilising spaces in order for our town and city centres to develop and recover. In this current debate ‘meanwhile use’ is a hot topic, which embodies the idea of flexible temporary use, but is encompassed in a longer-term site development strategy.
Of course, some types of space are more amenable to such re-use than others. Property expert Neil Wild recently reported in a recent IPM webinar that the demand for smaller units has risen dramatically, as small independent businesses look to build an in-person presence. This highlights the general trend of consumers seeking out unique products and services rather than the homogeneous shopping experiences often offered by major retailers. In this sense utilising pop up retailing as part of meanwhile strategy by encouraging multiple uses in the same space could be a worthwhile consideration. In contrast, the size of vacant units left by the departure of likes of Debenhams and John Lewis from many high streets, may render them more difficult to re-use. Thus, it is important that the resulting space is made as flexible as possible, in order to facilitate this.
Clearly a ‘meanwhile’ strategy is essential to avoid large vacant spaces on high streets, the basic idea behind the concept is simple: fill vacant space. However, in practice it can be difficult, with one of the major stumbling blocks often being complex ownership issues. For landlords, temporary and short term lets can be seen as risky, time consuming and not profitable. But with vacancy expected to rise as high 14%, things need to change (vii) . Recently the Royal Institute of British Architects has called for a better match making process, greater transparency around ownership and for short rents to be seen as an investment (viii). Additional guidance on the common challenges of engaging with landlords has also been compiled by the High Street Streets Force (ix). The resource discusses the common challenge of tracking down property owners or getting responses from them on specific issues.
Another aspect that could assist in utilising vacant space is better partnership working in town and city centres. Partnerships involving centre stakeholders including residents, businesses and landlords can help build trust and start a narrative around issues such as vacant spaces. A recent example of such a partnership focusing on a meanwhile strategy is ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’ , which is a consortium of local partners, supported by £1.7 million of funding. The aim of the partnership is to bring 50 vacant spaces back into use in turn creating 300 jobs. The scheme is currently working with the local communities to identify businesses who are able to utilise spaces available to animate the region, offering leases from 3 months to multiple years.
Another good example of work in the meanwhile field, is the social enterprise ‘Meanwhile Space’ based in London (xi). The enterprise helps utilise underused and vacant space for the benefit of the community by providing units, previously vacant, to small businesses on flexible and affordable terms. Meanwhile Space has supported more than 600 people gain space, in process creating more than 200 jobs throughout London and the South East.
We would argue that such schemes to promote ‘meanwhile’ use of vacant retail space, can be a way forward for many towns and cities that need to cope with the after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
References (URL Links also listed below):
iv Gary Warnaby and Charlotte Shi, 2018, Pop-up Retailing: Managerial and Strategic Perspectives. Cham: Springer.
vi Claire Colomb, 2012, Pushing the urban frontier: Temporary uses of spaces, city marketing, and the creative city discourse in 2000s Berlin. Journal of Urban Affairs, 34(2): 131-152. Page 143.