A retail property professional has hit out at government plans that would enable community groups and small businesses to take over properties left vacant for six months.
But Ian Thurlbeck, director at Newcastle-based retail property firm @retail, claimed the move could result in properties being auctioned to unscrupulous tenants.
He said: “This short-sighted scheme fails to address some fundamental issues, placing the burden directly on property owners and feeding off the general sense of mistrust by people in so-called ‘greedy” landlords.
“It raises many unanswered questions. For instance, what if the tenant who wins the auction is a rogue, pays none of the outgoings and trashes the property – who picks up the bill then? And do the local authorities tasked with running the auctions have the requisite experience and expertise? Will they be willing to take responsibility if things go wrong?”
He also reckons the plans fail to account for regional differences.
Thurlbeck added: “There is a popular misconception that our high streets are littered with empty shops, leading to a downward spiral of neglect, decay and blight,” he said. “This is not the case and here in the North East, we see many high streets that are thriving and as busy as anywhere else in the country.
“Moreover, regional vacancy rates are in line with national trends and in our experience, high street retail activity in Newton Aycliffe, Durham City, Bishop Auckland, Peterlee, Chester le Street, Stanley, Consett, Seaham and Crook among other places, where we have lately updated the council with vacancy rates for these town centres, remains robust.
“There are pockets within some of these town centres where vacancy rates exceed the national average, but I would say that this is as much a national issue as it is a North East one.”
The government plans form part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which ministers plan to use to reduce the number of boarded up shops on the high street.
Thurlbeck argues that it doesn’t make sense to attack landlords for leaving high street properties empty, seeing as 99% of the landlords he works with want to see their property let out.
He said: “The alternative is to suffer the cost of rates, repairs, insurance, security and maintenance. In our experience, most landlords faced with limited demand are prepared to agree short-term, rent-free leases with charities, local organisations and other groups, who can demonstrate they will be reliable and responsible occupiers. This helps to offset these costs while searching for a more sustainable solution.
“Indeed, landlords are often keen to mitigate their outgoings on vacant space and most of @retail’s clients who are faced with a lack of demand at market rents will let to charities and other organisations simply to mitigate rates.”