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Supporting the Recovery of the High Street in Bath and North East Somerset by Alex Bugden

Posted on 14 June 2022

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Guest Author

Our guest writter, Alex Bugden is a Town Planner with eight years’ experience delivering projects within the built environment. With a particular interest in Asset Based Community Development and resilient local economies, he currently works as Design Project Officer for Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Regeneration Team and Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust as a Community-led Housing Manager.

Over the past 18 months, Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Regeneration Team has been working with local stakeholders to breathe new life into vacant shops and buildings in high streets across the District. 

Having joined the team in 2019, it’s an exciting time to be part of a multidisciplinary team made up of town planners, urban designers, heritage conservationists and community developers delivering positive changes to High Streets across our city, town and and local district centres.  

In 2020, one in seven shops on UK High Streets was vacant, this increased to one in five in shopping malls (Local Data Company and British Retail Consortium, 2021). If we accept the premise that the bricks and mortar shopping experience will no longer serve as the primary function of high streets, what does this mean for the future of our shops? Can High Streets continue to be the focus for interaction and meeting, helping to tackle loneliness and social isolation? This certainly seems to hold weight with the increase in food and beverage businesses. Should high streets be more experiential, with more cultural, arts and event uses being encouraged in buildings and public spaces? Interestingly 69% of people say yes, culture on the high street makes their local area a better place to live (Arts Council England, 2021). Is there an optimum balance of uses and what does this mean for local and regional economic development? What is the role of local government and town and city management stakeholders? And how does all this fit within the contexts of smart cities, ensuring inclusivity and the declared climate and ecological crises – certainly a challenging set of questions!

I am a Town Planner and Built Environment Project Manager and lead ‘The Vacant Unit Action Project’ – or ‘The VUAP’, to save syllables – this has been both rewarding and challenging. The project started as a creative response to a set of challenges facing Bath’s City Centre. Towards the end of 2020, like many other Centres across the country, Bath had many vacant shops and we were responding to a complex and constantly changing environment that combined the need to support businesses, whilst ensuring public health was not compromised. Walking around the centre then, the economic impact of the pandemic was clearly reflected by rows of empty ground floor spaces – a reminder of the struggles encountered by so many businesses during that year. This was particularly noticeable in the North of the city centre, where vacancy rates exceeded regional and national averages at approximately 20%. 

‘Made in Bath’ pop-up shop in one of the spaces. Image Credit: Bath and North East Somerset Council (BNESC)

To address the impact of empty shops on the vitality of the high street, we initially worked with a collection of local arts, festival and set designers, cultural stakeholders and landlords Council’s team  to take over the shop windows of vacant shops with vibrant and curious 3D art installations. 

An example of one of the festive storefront takeovers. Image Credit: BNESC

As part of a broader programme of high street interventions, The VUAP is delivering a series of pilot projects within vacant shop properties as a means to explore, re-imagine and test alternative models or uses within the high street. It is through learning from these pilots that we wish to start understanding what the future of high streets could look like.

During this initial scoping phase of the project, we built on the initial window animations and art pilot and have since delivered more than fifteen additional immersive installations. We also broadened the range of temporary uses to include two six-week art exhibitions and performance spaces in vacant retail premises and supported a Share & Repair pop-up shop that promotes sustainable consumer choices on the high street.

‘In the Meanwhile’ space being used for performances and exhibitions. Image Credit: BNESC

The first phase helped us understand the barriers to delivery of meanwhile uses as well as evaluate the impact of the initial pilots. The learning from phase 1 was used to shape a second phase of focused activity designed to be a catalyst for High Street regeneration. 

We are now excited to be delivering four longer-term pilot projects across the district to develop and test ideas around future high streets: 

A before and after of the spaces impacted by this project. Image credit: BNESC

Since the lifting of restrictions relating to Covid-19, Bath has responded well with vacancy rates that have now improved to around 12%. The future of High Streets remains to be seen, however, by using these hubs to accommodate a mix of activities, the project’s success will be measured in part by whether they can create foundations to build on, expediting the change that communities want to see on their High Streets. It is certainly an exciting opportunity for us to step up to the challenge. 

B&NES Council was awarded £500,000 of funding from The Combined Authority’s Recovery Funding to deliver the ‘Vacant Unit Action Project’ (VUAP) across two phases and a two-year programme. In excess of £1 million has also been secured as match funding to the project.