The UK is filled with empty shops. Why not fill them with culture?

Boarded up shops in Dover. Image: Getty.

First it was Poundland. Next, House of Fraser. And then, Marks & Spencer.

In Aldershot, for example, the devastation of the local Marks & Spencer closing led to other traders losing 30 per cent of their income. In other towns, such as Cannock, Peterborough or Rugby, issues with high streets are nothing new. Shops on high streets remain shuttered, with betting shops and charity outlets filling in gaps. In total over, 6,000 shops closed in 2016, a rate of 13 per day. These figures, produced by Kantar, do not include independent shops.

These wounds are not being healed by the success of out-of-town retail parks. Yes, some, such as Elliott’s Field in Rugby, are thriving – but many others are not. Research has actually shown an increase in hair salons and cafes on high streets, especially in London. Nonetheless, many landowners are now either subsidising retailers to stay open – for example, subsidising big brands to remain in large ground floor units – or replacing them with ‘experiential’ uses.

Music, arts and culture have faced similar crisis. We are still reeling from a decade of closures of music venues, artist workspaces and rehearsal studios across the country. In London, it is widely noted that 35 per cent of grassroots music venues have closed since 2007, although this number has stabilised since 2015. For nightclubs and artist workspaces, the number is closer to 50 per cent.

This is being replicated across the country, with similar percentages noted in Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds. Just this week another storied venue, the Milton Keynes Stables, was threatened by a residential development.

So at the same time as a crisis is hitting shopping streets and retail parks, our venues are suffering, each victims of so-called regeneration and development.

I believe these trends are not a crisis, but present an opportunity for landowners and developers across the country. To make use of it, though, we must change the way we view and subsequently, value real estate. Without sacrificing a return, I believe this is possible. And it comes through focusing on people, not assets. We’re seeing a change to experiential and people focused working environments, like the much lauded 22 Bishopsgate project. It’s time to look at this as the solution to improving our high streets, too. And the best way to change this narrative, enliven our town centres and ensure that land retains an investor-friendly yield is through using, incorporating and leading with music and culture.

First, equip all ground floor units – those that are empty – to convert themselves into venues and community centres. This requires some investment - cleaning, repurposing, security, health and safety – but done inexpensively, can be bolted into covenant or through a service charge.

Once available, use local networks to advertise that they are available to be used. Advertise the rates, prioritising longer leases on more favourable terms for longstanding organisations or businesses, or offer peppercorn rent in exchange for the operator investing in outfitting. Or, like at Tileyard, go into business with the creators, where the developer and in that case, music community, developed the site in partnership. Put the onus on creators – and their products, services and offerings – to animate the space. Look at Peckham Levels as an example: a car-park turned youth and community hub, full of art, music and F&B.

And to back up this assertion, what if we developed more social and economic impact monitors to measure the viability and success of such a venue? What if global valuations and market flows looked more into the social impact models being led by organisations like Real Worth, or Triodos Bank?

And what if an asset, like this ground floor unit, was backed up by a 15 year viability plan, rather than one lasting just three or five? What if business rates were linked to community benefit, and calculated to incorporate culture and enlivenment in a more nuanced manner? If we were able to value culture through our business rates system, and provide some sort of discount linked to community benefit, it would encourage entrepreneurialism and ensure councils received rates.

How much money would the NHS save if an empty ground floor unit created social opportunities for older community members? And with all the empty spaces available, if each has programs aimed at improving health and wellbeing and combating loneliness, would this, over time, loosen the strain on our hospitals and social care providers? In Pinner, West London, a cafe is trialling a scheme where customers choose to sit at a particular table and, by doing so, open themselves up to conversations from strangers. This is just one table in one café in one unit.

I know this isn’t possible in some scenarios – but changing how we view our ground floor units will improve our towns and cities. Not only could we fill empty units with culture: that culture would earn income for those creating it, and raise the value of the land it sits own. If successful, it will capture value across its community.

Regardless of what we do, we are stuck with thousands of empty shops. Let’s use these spaces to fill all our towns with artists. Watch them improve.


Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.