Communities fight back to stop the spread of ghost towns
Windfalls of £100,000 from a scheme headed up by TV's "Queen of shops" Mary Portas will help two Westcountry communities tackle the blight of empty shops.
Tiverton in Mid Devon and Liskeard in South East Cornwall have both been selected as Portas Pilot towns.
It means they will receive a share of £1.2 million to help rejuvenate their town centres, and one of the issues on the agenda is empty shops.
In Tiverton, district and town councillor Sue Griggs is on the Town Team which is helping to shape the plans. One focus is to fill the six of 31 retail units which stand empty on Fore Street – and she has called on larger scale landlords to take more responsibility for the communities they affect.
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"When you walk down there at the moment, you get to a certain point and it almost looks deserted. It's a terrible shame."
The Town Team is working to engage landlords to try to both reduce rents to make them affordable for smaller-scale businesses, and to fill the units while they are unoccupied. But she said: "Most of those landlords don't live in Tiverton and they have no local connection here. It doesn't seem to matter to them whether the shops are filled or not. It's appalling."
She said she was "excited" by the plans on the table, and by the access to information that the Portas Pilot afforded.
But she said: "I think landlords should be made to do more. They have a responsibility to high streets, and to the people living in the area where they have their business."
The Town Team wants to tidy up shop fronts to stop them declining into a "dreadful" state, and display artwork until they are filled – but they are finding they are restricted by a swathe of regulations, and the question of when business rates have to be paid.
Other plans include a market on Fore Street.
But in Liskeard, Gavin Davies, acting chair of the Town Team, said landlords had been responsive to change, and several had agreed to short-term low rent leases for up to 12 months.
"It's very easy to blame landlords, however every single month they are paying business rates to keep these properties up while they are standing empty. It's in their interest to fill them and we have had very positive responses."
He said it was crucial that landlords benefited from the deal and that the property was well maintained.
But he said the main issue was improving footfall. "If you go to one town and half the shops are shut, you're more likely to seek out a town where they're all full and they offer more choice to the consumer. But it needs to be a good mix, like it always was in a market town. Having them all full but selling the same thing won't make the situation any better."