Fiona Sawyer Frances Edwards 11 March 2019

Opening doors on the High Street

Opening doors on the High Street image

Launched in November last year, the Open Doors pilot is regarded by the Government as a flagship project. Unveiled in the last Budget, its aim is to match vacant high street or town centre units in areas with above-average vacancy rates with community groups looking for space on a temporary, or 'meanwhile', basis.

The intention - and it is laudable - is that unused premises should be available to groups who need or want town centre space, but have difficulty taking on a lease or paying market rents.

It will be fascinating to observe the results of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) solution. Their idea has been to pair up with the Meanwhile Foundation, an independent charity, who will take leases of the units and license them to the community groups. The first phase of the pilot invited landlords across the public and private sectors to offer their unused premises across five trial areas. There were caveats – principally that premises had to be 1,000 square feet or less, and preferably available for 12 months.

Arguably, the Open Doors pilot should have potential to help reinvigorate town centres. The general perception of high streets has, until recently, been that they should be retail focused. This may have been a valid perspective in the past, but for town centres to stay vital and vibrant this has to change.

It's also worth remembering that this pilot is part of a larger package of measures announced by the Government in the last Budget, attempting to focus investment in town centres, providing funding to local authorities and consulting on reducing barriers to change of use by increasing permitted development rights.

However, questions should be asked. Not, as some may try, to undermine what is being attempted, but to ensure that that the steps that are being taken now are timely and effective enough to achieve the regeneration that is urgently needed.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that a report published last month by the HCLGC identified that the adaptation of high streets and town centres into 'activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities' is one of the main drivers that is needed to save town centres. It went on to say that 'achieving the large-scale structural change needed will require an intervention led by the local authority' and that 'central government funding will be needed' in addition to 'significant private investment'.

Yet the Open Doors pilot relies on landlords offering their empty space, and is only promoting meanwhile use.

This begs a question about whether landlords will want to take part. For private landlords, despite there being no cost to them, and benefits such as lower insurance costs and protection from squatters, many already allow local groups or charities to use their empty properties, and the conditions attached to this scheme may make it of limited interest. One key disadvantage is the requirement for the length of lease, so it is encouraging to see that the Government may accept six month lease offers. The indication is that there is room for manoeuvre – and this is important to ensure all interested parties can help make the scheme a success.

Another question to ask is whether meanwhile community uses can change the perception of town centres in the long-term. The risk is that, just as a place becomes established in the minds of the community as serving a particular purpose, it will change. Previous attempts to encourage meanwhile uses, such as the 2012 Meanwhile Project were not successful; the hope must be that this scheme will be different.

The HCLGC report identified that positive intervention by local and central government is needed to enable community uses to transform town centres as destinations in the long term. Some local authorities are already taking action. Evidence for this is the increasing frequency with which they are buying town centre space to help regenerate their areas.

Over the next few months, it will be interesting to watch the government's response to the HCLGC report, and how much they are prepared to intervene proactively to save town centres, rather than rely on private and charitable enterprise.

It may be a case of 'watch this space'. And the hope will be that each space will be occupied.

Fiona Sawyer is a professional support lawyer and Frances Edwards is senior associate in Herbert Smith Freehills' Real Estate practice.

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