One in seven shops in Britain are now empty. Transforming bustling retail hubs into neglected, unloved spaces, the perfect storm of the pandemic, the emergence of online shopping, and the catapulting cost of commercial rent spelt the end of the high street as we knew it.
Once a place at the heart of our communities, where independent eateries neighboured thriving book shops, and lively charity shops sat side-by-side with family-owned craft stores, there’s nowhere in Britain that came out of the ‘unprecedented times’ unscathed. With the mass decline in footfall stretching the length of the country, there had to be a pivotal shift to resurrect our well-loved high streets.
Now, in a shock twist, a parliamentary bill has been announced, set to force landlords to rent out shops once they have been vacant for 12 months. Entering the spaces into what Boris Johnson has depicted a ‘rental auction,’ the highest bidder will get the green light to begin business from the premises.
The move comes as part of the government’s 2019 general election promise, pledging to support ‘left-behind communities’, giving them the resources to become on par with the rest of the nation. It comes after a study by the British Retail Consortium revealed that one in five shops in the North East is currently vacant, in contrast to London’s rate of one in eleven.
In a landmark statement, made on May 7, Boris Johnson outlined the motivation behind the move: “High streets up and down the country have long been blighted by derelict shopfronts, because they’ve been neglected, stripping opportunity from local areas.” In agreement, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said: “These measures will breathe new life into high streets, transforming once-bustling communities into vibrant places to live and work once again and restoring local pride as we level up across the country.”
It’s an unprecedented move, expected to encourage a U-turn on anti-social behaviour, kickstart local economic growth, and breathe life back into our high streets. Beyond enhancing our communities’ curb appeal, with the lick of paint and TLC to suit, this move has the power to increase job opportunities, decrease commercial rent, and ignite a sense of “neighbourhood pride”.
And while the announcement is viewed as a huge move by many, it’s something that we’re already doing, spearheading a new age of social impact. As a business incubator, partnering with start-ups, social entrepreneurs, and social enterprises across London, our ‘meanwhile use’ projects are designed to temporarily transform neglected shops into a diverse selection of pop-ups, from cafés to art installations, and everything in-between.
Through the power of meanwhile spaces, we’re creating an experience – something that the world of eCommerce can never compete with. Whether it’s a safe space for women, a fun zone for children, or an environment where our neighbour’s entrepreneurial dreams can come to life, we believe that social enterprises can disrupt consumer habits, pressing ‘reset’ on the high street as we know it.
Put simply, we don’t need billionaire backers and retail moguls. We don’t need intricate architecture and eye-watering design budgets. And we don’t need an influx of chains, driving up commercial rental prices. In short, we need change. With a decline in overheads, preserving jobs and creating livelihoods as they go, we can use otherwise-vacant shops for the greater good.