The number of vacant retail and business premises in Preston city centre has halved in the past three years.
In a boost for the city’s economy, vacancy rates have plunged from an alarming 24 per cent in 2012 to a new low of 12 per cent now – six per cent below the regional average.
An influx of new restaurants such as Turtle Bay and Mundo Tapas, the private takeover of Preston Guild Hall, and empty shops being occupied have all been cited as factors in Preston’s recovery.
A recent count of vacant properties – which includes retail, leisure and commercial – by Preston Business Improvement District (BID) showed a dip in the number of units lying unused.
Mark Whittle, who heads operations at Preston BID, said: “The city centre is the heart of Preston and it’s great to see there has been such a considerable improvement in occupancy levels over the past few years.
“Empty shops are something which will always deter shoppers and visitors alike and that is why such an emphasis has been placed on filling as many of the voids on the high street as possible.
“For its part, BID is working closely with traders in the city centre to ensure they are not only getting the support they need to stay on top, but doing what we can to get more people visiting Preston.
“People don’t have to come to town any longer; we need to ensure they ‘want’ to come to town.”
Last month, Preston Council published its City Centre Plan backed by the BID, which aims to attract new investment to the city centre by providing guidelines for new development and promoting the area to investors.
It includes an ambition for the city to be “confident and competitive” as well as having a “distinctive” offer by 2026.
Mark added: “Moves like the takeover of the Guild Hall by a private investor, the recent announcement around Lancashire County Council’s investment in the bus station and proposals for developing Preston’s historic markets are all positive signs for the city.
“But, everyone involved in supporting its development needs to recognise that even a 12 per cent vacancy rate in the city centre is too high and there’s more work to be done”.
Ajith Jayawickrema, of Turtle Bay restaurant, said: “We chose Preston simply because we could see potential in the city – it’s a business decision at the end of the day. We felt that there were enough people who would love the Turtle Bay brand in the area and that the people of Preston would welcome us. It turned out that we were right,”
Keith Mitchell, manager of The Fishergate Shopping Centre, said: “I’m cautiously optimistic that things have now steadied in Preston and we’re going to see more growth in the city’s retail offering.
“The climate is such that much needed new investment in city centre facilities could be forthcoming. Certainly the feedback from traders is that things are looking up.”
Preston City Council leader Coun Peter Rankin, said: “This is very good news for Preston. The lower retail vacancy rate has shown that recent investment in Fishergate is now starting to reap rewards.
“However, the success of the city centre isn’t just down to shops and shopping. The council is focusing on the role of the city centre economy as a whole, not just retail. This is helped by the rejuvenation of the Guild Hall as well as new bars and restaurants assisting the night time economy in the city.”
BID, which is operated by the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, is financed by a one per cent levy placed on the business rates bills of city centre traders.
It is behind crowd-pulling events including the annual Christmas lights switch-on, PrestFest and Familyfest events which draw thousands of people to the city’s day and night-time economies, and the hugely popular thrice annual Lancashire Market.
The BID figures come a few days after a national survey showed there were twice as many empty shops across the north of England than in the south. The Local Data Company said one in five shops in the north was vacant, with just one in 10 in the south empty.