As Christmas decorations are going up, our thoughts turn to Christmas shopping, but the well documented issues facing many high streets mean that these are no longer the Christmas shopping destinations they once were. Instead, festive lights (our modern-day boughs of holly) are shining over many empty units, with action needed to return these to places where people want to spend time, particularly when ‘tis the season to be jolly’.

As a case in point, in our home city of Aberdeen, the Council is this month due to consider an Empty Shops Action Plan which highlights that almost a quarter of the units on Union Street (the city’s traditional main shopping street and thoroughfare) are currently empty, and sets out a number of measures to encourage these to be brought back into use. Proposed measures include, for example:

  • creating new zones for different sections of Union Street and the surrounding roads, each with its own purpose and identity;
  • establishing a Union Street Investment Fund offering grants for up to 50% of eligible physical works needed to reconfigure vacant shops to the size that both consumers and businesses require; and
  • promoting the concept of a Union Street Rent Auction, in terms of which the Council could hold auctions to secure tenants for empty shop units in designated areas.

Of these, it is the last that is the most headline grabbing, but what would this actually involve? And what other measures might be used to get new occupants into these empty units?

As set out in the Action Plan, the concept of a rent auction stems from the UK Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which seeks to enable councils to designate areas that are important to the local economy, and to then have the power to hold a rent auction to secure a tenant for any shop in that area which has been empty for more than one year. The landlord of the property in question would be obliged to accept a bid from a prospective tenant, forcing the empty shop to be brought back into use. The relevant provisions of that Bill however extend only to England and Wales and the Scottish Government has indicated that, if Scottish Councils wish to hold such auctions, this would need to be enabled by some other legislation, with no specific proposals for any such legislation having been identified. It therefore seems unlikely that rent auctions could actually be introduced by Aberdeen City Council, at least in the near future.

Meantime though, there other mechanisms that can potentially be used to bring empty units back into use, including:

  • compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) – under s189 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997, local authorities have the power to compulsory acquire land that is suitable for development, redevelopment or improvement, or that is required in the interests of proper planning in the area. This can though be controversial and, in practice, many local authorities seem to be reluctant to use these powers due to the potential cost and administrative burden.
  • community rights to buy – although not a power within the local authority’s gift to exercise, councils could support and encourage proposals to transfer empty units into community ownership, and bring them back into use that way, with this potentially being a powerful way to transform city centres into places that reflect the needs and demands of the local community. A great example of this is the Midsteeple Quarter project in Dumfries, where the community is acquiring, redeveloping, and bringing vacant and underused properties on the town’s High Street into use for a mix of commercial, social and residential purposes, and is widely recognised as breathing new life into the town centre there. Related to this, previous Aurora Planning blogs have looked at specific community rights to buy abandoned, neglected and detrimental land, as well as those to buy land in the interest of sustainable development, and the relationship between these and the planning system (see, for example, our blogs All change for better places, and Providing something for everybody, created by everybody). However, while these rights have now been in force for several years, no successful applications to exercise either of them have yet been made, inviting questions about what more could be done to empower community bodies to contribute to town centre regeneration in this way.
  • compulsory sale orders – the Scottish Government has also looked at introducing compulsory sales orders, which would give local authorities the power to require land and buildings which are not being used for any productive purpose, and where this is having a detrimental impact on the surrounding community, to be sold by public auction, or unconditional tender, to the highest bidder. But, despite a pledge to introduce these in the last parliamentary session, this has not materialised, and it remains to be seen whether such orders are ever to be implemented.
  • masterplan consent areas – consideration was also given in Aberdeen’s Empty Shops Action Plan to the potential to pilot a masterplan consent area (MCA) scheme to attract investment by removing the need to apply for planning permission for development specified in this (for example, certain changes of use, frontage alterations, and other minor changes). And, while the Council decided not to progress this due to Union Street being designated as a conservation area, there is nothing in the legislation to prevent conservation areas being included in a MCA. Indeed, as well as removing the requirement to apply for planning permission for specified developments, a MCA scheme can also remove the need to apply for Conservation Area Consent where this would otherwise be required. Alternatively, a scheme could authorise specified changes of use, but not any associated external works, and thus provide potential investors with certainty about the uses to which buildings could be put while still ensuring that the physical appearance of the conservation area is protected. It is also worth noting that the regulations to bring MCA schemes into force are not yet in place, albeit a similar result could be achieved meantime through the use of existing powers to create Simplified Planning Zones and, irrespective of when MCA schemes do come into force, this approach is something that other local authorities could consider.

Ultimately, a combination of measures will be required to regenerate our high streets, with council’s working in partnership with others to achieve this, taking into account changing shopping and social habits (for more on which, see our blog Rising from the Ashes). And, although perhaps sometimes being controversial, interventions such as rent auctions, compulsory purchases or sales, or community buyouts, may be what is needed to do this if decorations (whether boughs of holly or Christmas lights) are not going to be increasingly hanging over vacant halls in our high streets.

Thanks for reading!

Pippa and Maggie


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