Right up your street: a new era for town centres?

As the town centres of the past fade in our collective memory and while recession-bitten chain stores shut up shop nationwide, across the UK people are launching community-minded projects to help revive our high-streets

“Carnage on the high street,” screamed a newspaper headline, when it was announced in January 2013 that HMV had gone into administration. The article called the music and DVD chain the biggest victim yet of the recent high profile retail demises, and cast the likes of Woolworths, Jessops and Comet in supporting roles as weary but brave fighters who battled until the bitter end in a “high street bloodbath” unfolding across the UK.

It was a sad day indeed for HMV employees and a surprise to few people that the tabloids would choose such evocative language in which to relay the news. Indeed, the demise of the high street has been shouted from all corners in recent weeks, months and years. But could saying goodbye to ‘chain towns’ actually represent the dawn of a new era on our high streets? A chance to reclaim our town and city centres for communities?

Dan Thompson, who founded the Empty Shops Network, believes we should seize the opportunity to turn our high streets into something better. “There are chances to open new, locally owned and managed shops to replace the chain stores that are leaving,” says Thompson. “There are now gaps on the high street – people still want a camera shop where they can get help and advice, and CDs and vinyl are selling well.

“Underpinning everything I do is the belief that people have to do the things they want, not wait for somebody else,” Thompson continues. “Start talking about the problem – on Facebook, on Twitter, in your local cafe and at the school gate. Start mobilising people to work together and find things that will work locally.”

Inspiring examples are everywhere. In Coventry, theatre company Talking Birds has built a reputation out of imaginative uses of empty spaces, awakening history along the way. They have held plays and events in spaces ranging from a former Royal Mail sorting office to a decommissioned hospital to most recently, a former fish and chip shop. They often ask local people or those formerly employed in the spaces to contribute their memories to the projects, lending them a deeply personal element and uniquely capturing a moment in time.

“As artists, we tend to be good at working in the gaps between things, and nobody likes to see rows of empty shops with the shutters down,” says composer and film-maker Derek Nisbet, from Talking Birds. “There is still creativity, so many good ideas and so much potential in these empty spaces.”

L-R: Deborah Reyner who runs crafted goods company Milla & Arti, with Emma Jones, co-founder of StartUp Britain, and Eric Pickles at a PopUp Britain store in London © Department for Communities and Local Government

PopUp Britain, the retail arm of national enterprise campaign StartUp Britain, is calling for a change in the law to fast-track the reopening of empty shops. However, they say administrators are stuck in a catch-22 situation because of regulations surrounding the leases they inherit, which in most cases rule out opening shops on a short term basis, even though they are not in use. Co-founder Emma Jones says: “With a demand and a will to take over these empty stores from small businesses, it means a change in the way the system works has got to be worth considering.”

While the Local Data Company says an average of 14.2% of shops in British towns are currently lying empty, last year also saw record numbers of start-ups registering, up almost 10% on 2011.

Social entrepreneur Richard Leighton is full of ideas. He established We Create*, a fashion-based social enterprise which supports young British designers by opening pop-up shops and design studios across the Midlands. They give young people the opportunity to sell their designs, as well as incubation space above the shops in which they can work on their creative businesses. Another of Leighton’s projects, Forgotten Vintage, establishes pop-up vintage clothing shops run by unemployed young people, the profits from which go towards tackling homelessness.

“It’s important to put these spaces to good use because the high street has always been the commercial and social centre of communities,” he said. “There has been a growth in out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping at the same time as the UK economy has declined, and the need for sustainable social services and support has increased. I see empty high streets as a real opportunity. Until property owners, government and local authorities create the mechanisms to allow individuals and community groups to do this, it is about being entrepreneurial to find ways around it.”

“It’s important to put these spaces to good use because the high street has always been the commercial and social centre of communities” – Richard Leighton

East London Furniture (ELF) started life in an empty shop in Hoxton Street, after being supported by Meanwhile Space, an organisation that works to wring every ounce of creative and entrepreneurial potential from empty spaces. All of ELF’s products are made entirely from materials salvaged from waste, therefore diverting huge chunks of wood and other materials from landfill. Until April 2013, they are working from another empty shop in nearby Stoke Newington.

In Leeds, East Street Arts arrange for empty office blocks and other spaces to be used by artists who would not otherwise have the chance to work in such central and affordable spaces.

Programmes breathing new life into our high streets are being run on a larger scale too. The New Economics Foundation runs a programme called Reimagine Your High Street to help people develop their own low carbon local economy, based around wellbeing.

Separately, PopUp Britain is keen to roll out a model of small businesses working in a retail space for two weeks at a time, giving them valuable retail experience and brand exposure. A pilot in Richmond, Surrey, saw more than 60 businesses take up a space in five months, with 91% saying the experience had been good for their business.

The East London Furniture shop, which only stock products made from salvaged waste © East London Furniture

Sister venture PitchUp Britain is a competition giving 12 retail start-ups the chance to pitch to key buyers at John Lewis. A pilot scheme last year attracted 400 entrants.

Designer Wayne Hemingway, who started his fashion business Red or Dead on market stalls in London in the 80s, has urged people “not to be downhearted” by big brand closures. Writing in the Guardian, he said: “My hope is that the disappearance of large retailers will provide an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to set up in affordable rental shop fronts and market units.”

Hemingway also called upon the public to support new initiatives if we want to keep our new town centres thriving: “For our visions to become a reality in our towns and cities, we the consumers will have to frequent the galleries, cafes and new independent stores that rise out of the ashes of the tired old retail chains.”

Towns Alive Awards 2013

If you know of a positive project helping to revive the high street in your local area, you could nominate it for the 2013 Towns Alive National Awards, run by the Action for Market Towns initiative. Last year, the top award was won by the Community Hub in Wooler, Northumberland, after Glendale Gateway Trust rescued the Tourist Information Centre and library service from closure. The deadline for entries is Friday 26 April 2013.

More information: www.towns.org.uk