Open for business: The fight against empty shops is well underway

The number of vacant shops in Preston has fallen
The number of vacant shops in Preston has fallen
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The number of empty shops and business premises in Preston city centre is falling, encouraging new figures show.

In further proof that the city is fighting back after the recession, the overall vacancy rate in Preston city centre is just under 18 per cent.

Preston’s vacancy rate has decreased since the last quarter when it stood at 19.4 per cent – and the quarter prior to that, 21 per cent.

Mark Whittle, manager of Preston Business Improvement District, said: “There’s still much work to be done, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

In 2014, a Post survey showed there were still more than 100 empty shops in the heart of Preston city centre.

But council and business leaders said the fightback was well under way.

And they have been proved right as new tenants have drifted back to turn empty units into successful businesses.

On Wednesday, a Preston council Task and Finish Group is to hear from cabinet members Coun John Swindells and Coun Robert Boswell on the latest situation regarding empty shops in the city centre.

The figures released today have been compiled by Preston Business Improvement District.

The BID has taken into account all types of vacant commercial properties. This includes commercial, retail and hospitality – many areas only count ‘vacant ground level premises’,

BID says Blackpool’s rate stands at around 15.7 per cent (ground floor retail only), and Blackburn around 18 per cent.

Online retailer OnBuy.com said this week that the national vacancy rate for shops is currently 13.3 per cent.

In 2014, Preston Council put the city’s shop vacancy rate at nearly 24 per cent.

But the authority stressed the comparison was already based on outdated figures and the situation was already starting to improve.

Preston’s vacancy rate among shops is still higher than average, and the council admitted in its own report in 2013: “Although the city centre has a wide-ranging shopping offer and is the main non-food shopping centre for Lancashire, for many years there has been very little investment in new floorspace.

“As a result, Preston’s retail ranking has fallen, the proportion of vacant shops has risen as the city centre is struggling to keep up with the changing retail environment and the growth of internet shopping.”

Now the council is set to give its own update on the situation.

They will be quizzed by members on all the issues.

The group met in October and resolved:

*A better understanding of the different types of empty commercial properties;

*The length of time properties have been vacant;

*Current rental value of empty properties;

*Reasons why properties are vacant and the impact on local amenities (e.g. shops)

The October meeting heard that the current void rates of properties owned by Preston City Council was well below average, crucially because the Council was seen as a good landlord.

Of the properties not in a lettable condition, the main option was a change of use.

John Crellin, Head of City Development informed members that the City Centre Living Strategy was currently in the process of being completed and would be a key reference document for the study.

Members will also consider traffic issues in the city centre and whether that has an impact on people’s shopping habits.

Factors include the controversial shared space in Fishergate, and congestion in and around St George’s Shopping Centre.

Meanwhile the out of town Deepdale Retail Park is booming, which could attract shoppers away from the city centre.

'We have been welcomed into the community with open arms'

New businesses are coming into Preston all the time.

And the once-struggling Winckley Square area is on the up after a massive facelift and a series of new businesses choosing the area to operate in.

Across the city, Manchester entrepeneurs have opened The Eat Well restaurant in Ormskirk Road.

Lee Gilbert, managing director, of the Eat Well, said: “We chose Preston as the location for The Eat Well because of existing links between the owners and local business and because of Preston’s firmly established reputation for innovative forward thinking and the warmth of its people.

“We have opened to rave reviews and have been welcomed into the community with open arms.

“We very much look forward to building our business here and serving tasty and healthy food to the people of Preston.”

Popular eaterie Solita is now firmly embedded in Winckley Square occupying the premises formerly owned by chef Paul Heathcote.

Co-owners Franco Sotgiu and Simon Pogson opened SoLita on Turner Street, Manchester, in 2012, aiming to deliver an American grill with a dash of Italian flair.

Franco said last year before its opening that he hoped Solita’s presence would help to kick-start the revivial of the Winckley Square area.

“We’ve been keen to expand north (of Manchester) and Preston has always been one of our target cities.

“We feel Preston has massive potential.”

Preston has been hit by the loss of national chains like BHS and JJB sports but the leisure industry has helped fill many outlets with cafes, bars and eateries.

Coun Peter Rankin, leader of Preston City Council, welcomed the BID figures.

He said: “This is very positive news for Preston and is testament to the hard work going on behind the scenes with partners to attract new business and investment.

“Our City Centre Living Strategy will complement the arrival of new ventures by offering people not only homes and jobs, but also a growing night time entertainment offer.”

Andrew Stringer, general manager of St George’s Shopping Centre, said: “The figures represent a positive step in the right direction.

“Here at St George’s we’ve welcomed brands including global food chain Burger King and Australian jewellery chain Lovisa and this week H&M has officially re-launched its new and expanded store, which shows a real confidence in Preston.

“In addition, across the city as a whole we’ve seen several new dining and leisure businesses open their doors – which all help in positioning Preston as a great place to visit.”