On Thursday, 20th July, Tom Hindmarch, Stakeholder Engagement Manager for the Transforming and Innovating Public Services (TIPS) programme hosted an event focused on the revitalisation of high streets and town centres. The session brought together experienced speakers, Iain Nicolson, Founder of The Vacant Shops Academy and Strategic Development Lead at The Institute of Place Management, along with Chris Lewis, Strategic Lead for Creating a Better Place at Oldham Council. The event garnered a positive response, drawing in over 30 iNetwork members to listen and learn tips for regeneration.

The event kicked off with Iain Nicolson sharing his experiences since launching The Vacant Shops Academy in 2022. He has been actively collaborating with various councils to combat rising vacancy rates in town centres and on high streets, recognising that numerous factors contribute to the growing number of empty units.

Iain highlighted the reasons why local authorities must proactively address vacancy issues. High vacancy rates not only create negative perceptions about a place but also contribute to an increase in anti-social behaviour. Moreover, high vacancy can deter investment and make it more challenging for existing businesses to thrive.

Iain debunked the common assumption that landlords and agents bear sole responsibility for vacant units. Instead, he emphasised the significance of a collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders to tackle the multitude of issues contributing to the problem.

Iain presented a simple and effective four-step process to support local authorities in reducing vacancy rates: Audit, engage, encourage, and promote. This process empowers authorities to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes behind vacancy rates and improve stakeholder relations in the community.

The built environment has witnessed significant changes over the last five years, including the decline of major brands, the impact of the pandemic, changes in policy, and the rise of out-of-town retail parks. In this challenging climate, Iain emphasised the urgency for Local Authorities to engage with stakeholders and devise unique, tailor-made solutions to combat vacancy issues effectively.

Chris Lewis followed by discussing Oldham’s ambitious town centre masterplan aimed at rejuvenating the heart of the town. He pointed out how the pandemic and the surge in online shopping significantly affected the main shopping centre in Oldham, The Spindles, resulting in a noticeable increase in vacancy rates and a loss of the area’s distinctive character.

To address the situation head-on, the council decided to take ownership of the issue and developed a comprehensive masterplan outlining strategies to revitalise the town centre. One of the key components of the plan included the acquisition of The Spindles shopping centre, which was successfully completed in 2020.

The masterplan has ambitious goals, aiming to create over 2000 new homes, generate 1000 new jobs, provide 100 apprenticeships, and unlock £285 million of investment. Chris shared that the council has already commenced auctioning the masterplan, with initiatives such as the repurposing of the TJ Hughes unit, refurbishment of the old library, and the development of staff offices in The Spindles, designed as modern hybrid working spaces set to open later this year. In addition, the council has begun working with MUSE in order to develop a site for housing

Chris acknowledged the importance of delivering on the masterplan’s promises to build trust with stakeholders. He noted the council’s commitment to ensuring that past masterplans, which may not have materialised, will be different this time, as they are already making tangible progress towards their goals.

The engaged audience posed the speakers several questions including how to manage relationships with landlords, how to develop listed buildings and the funding landscape for town centres. The topic of regeneration and town centres is particularly topical and the iNetwork will look to explore it further throughout the year.