You’d expect a conference bringing people together around the sombre fact that the North West has the highest number of empty shops to be a pretty solemn affair.

You’d expect a conference bringing people together around the sombre fact that the North West is the region with the highest number of empty shops to be a pretty solemn affair. Not so at High Street Revival hosted by Manchester’s Band on the Wall, a legendary music venue more used to Talking Heads than talking shop.

As the first major conference of its type in Manchester to tackle the problem of empty shops, the event fizzed with ideas and confidence, presenting the crisis on the high street as an opportunity to do things differently.

The Labour Member of Parliament, Simon Danczuk, said nearly half a million square metres of empty space in public buildings could be used to support ailing high streets.

Calling the Government’s decision to release just 20 out of 550 empty Government buildings to start-ups a token effort, he said town centres all over the country were full of empty courthouses, local government offices and health authority buildings that needed to be put to creative use.

Citing the example of a community theatre in Otley, West Yorkshire, which was formerly a derelict magistrates court, he said creatively using public buildings could help breathe confidence into neglected high streets.

“This has gone from an empty magistrates’ court into a vibrant community theatre showing touring productions, comedy, festivals and music. It has something for everyone,” he said. “Building a strong sense of community will help retail thrive. These are extraordinary times and we need to think differently about empty government buildings.”

Joined by retail and regeneration figures at the event, including Julian Dobson, director of Urban Pollinators, Dan Thompson from the Empty Shops Network and Joe Barratt, the 19 year old who spearheaded Stockport’s successful Portas Pilot bid, delegates heard a series of passionate arguments about how to save the high street.

Joe Barratt, who has launched the Teenage Market in Stockport and got business leaders to mentor young talents, told the audience young people needed a bigger stake on the high street to make them thrive again.

The subject of Portas Pilots was discussed at length throughout the day with the overwhelming view from panelists and delegates being the momentum this had built must not be lost.

Opinions may be divided on Mary Portas, but it’s widely acknowledged that she has brought hundreds of town teams together around a common objective; creating better town centres. This has generated so much goodwill and community spirit, and we cannot afford to let this fizzle out.  We all know the wheels of change grind slowly in Government but they need to speed things up and give towns more help to deliver change.

The founder of the Empty Shops Network, Dan Thompson, added that high void rates meant the high street should embrace a period of experimentation and encourage more pop up shops to try out new ideas.

He said local authorities were often uncomfortable about encouraging pop ups because they knew some would end in failure.

“Empty shops are a perfect place to let people test and prototype, but this means some ideas will fail,” he said. “We need to make failure inspirational, and celebrate it. We should allow local councils to admit to failure, so that they can do better next time round. Allowing young entrepreneurs to test ideas in council or government property with rent-free periods is the best way to create the high street of the future. At the moment new ideas are just not given breathing space to grow.”

Pop up shops was a recurring talking point throughout the day. It was especially encouraging to see landlords at major shopping centres at the event tweeting afterwards that they were more than receptive to ideas for pop ups in their vacant units.

Rochdale’s MP, Simon Danczuk, concluded by calling on all delegates to do more to lobby other MPs about the importance of the high street. “Politicians generally respond to local pressure and they need to hear from local people about why they should be doing everything possible to save their high street,” he said.

  • Paul Turner-Mitchell, owner of young fashion indie 25 Ten Boutique in Rochdale and a passionate campaigner for North West retail.