FILLING UP THE EMPTIES

When our town team project started, Wantage town centre had 23 empty units – that’s around 12.5% of the total. And although that was not far off the national average it was high for a south east market town, and was impacting heavily on the look of the town centre and on morale. Mill Street had nine of those empties and – although it was home to salons, and financial businesses and takeaways – it had no shops!

Working with landlords and agents to overcome the barriers to those units being let was one of the priority challenges facing the town team in April 2013 when we got underway.

Thanks to a team effort involving our local partners – the councils and Wantage & District Chamber – the landlords, agents, our existing businesses and the community, by the time the Great British High Street Awards judges visited Wantage in November 2014, the number of empty and available units was down to three – and all of those had particular challenges, one of which was that they were too large for most independent businesses, but too small for a standard national chain requirement. Since then, two of those original remaining three have been let – a demonstration to colleagues in other towns working on this issue that barriers to units being let can be overcome, even if it takes time.

There are a range of reasons why units are empty. When people visit a town and see lots it’s easy to think it means there is a lack of demand – too few businesses want to open up in the town. Actually that's rarely the case – for the majority of units the main barriers are what we call supply-side: the empties are the wrong size, or in the wrong place or the rent or business rates bills would be above the market rate (for various reasons) or they are in poor condition and there’s a debate over whether the landlord or the incoming tenants should pick up the tab to change that.

Our task as a town team was to help overcome that, and we used a variety of ways including running pop up shops – to offer businesses a short term let opportunity to take on the unit and see if it worked for them – and brokering rent-free periods so that incoming tenants could afford to do some of the works needed (see our Blog on The Mix as an example). We also helped attract new businesses to considering opening up in Wantage by looking at the types of independent business our town centre was missing and looking for successful Indies in other towns who were ready to expand and could be encouraged to come here.

With the pop up shop in place, our community space, The Mix, taking on another long empty unit and new businesses starting to take some of the other empties, the town had momentum which helped attract others in.

Since 2014 we’ve had a couple of spikes in numbers of empty and available units – in both cases caused by factors outside of the town – but, with one or two exceptions which we’re working on, they do tend to let quicker than they had done at the start, and we have a number of our existing business who’d like to move to a bigger or more high profile space in the town, and others who’d like to take their first step here, who’ve not been able to because suitable units aren’t available.

All of this means we need to and will stay very much on the case!

Empty unit: 21 Mill Street in 2013

Empty unit 21 Mill Street in 2013

21 Mill Street: Home to Buzz Cafe

21 Mill Street: Home to Buzz Cafe

Buzz Cafe interiors

Buzz Cafe interiors

Buzz Cafe interiors

Buzz Cafe interiors