Mixed views in Norfolk over forcing landlords to rent shops

Jamie Osborn, Green city and county councillor.

Jamie Osborn, Green city and county councillor, agrees with giving councils more powers to tackle the issue of empty shops - but only if there is more money to help them. - Credit: Jamie Osborn

High streets blighted by empty shops could be given a new lease of life under plans  to force landlords to let out vacant units.

The Government bid to reduce the number vacant premises gives new powers to local authorities who will be able to hold "rental auctions" if a shop is empty for more than a year allowing community groups and independent businesses to take them over.

The new powers will be introduced as part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will be announced in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, and also allow for more permanent al-fresco dining ushered in under the pandemic.

The Prime Minister has said the plans would rid high streets of "derelict shopfronts" and restore neighbourhood pride.

Across Norfolk business and council leaders broadly welcomed the plans, as long as cash-strapped councils have the resources to implement them.

In Norwich Jamie Osborn (Green), county and city councillor for the Mancroft ward, said it would only work if under-pressure authorities were given more money.

He said: "We want to revive high streets.

"It has been quite distressing to see shops closing in Norwich when it has usually been bucking the trend of high street decline. 

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"I think it is a good idea to give councils more powers but the government needs to provide cash-strapped authorities with the resources and funds to be able to do that."

Steve Morphew, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, wants to see life brought back to shops but has concerns about the legal ramifications in forcing property owners to act. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group at Norfolk County Council, believes the government plans need to be teased out in more detail. 

Mr Morphew said: "Anything that brings life back into the shops is great but at the end of the day the cost of living will make the most difference.

"Something should be done about the lack of shops but independents seems to be doing a lot better than large corporate chains at the moment.

"The power to rent them out and forcing property owners to do anything can be a bit of a nightmare with the legal ramifications." 

In North Norfolk the plans have been met with a mixed response. 

John Roseby, Sheringham Chamber of Trade chairman.

John Roseby, Sheringham Chamber of Trade chairman. - Credit: Archant

John Roseby, from the business group Experience Sheringham, described it as "not a bad idea" that could help make councils more responsible for their town centres.

Mr Roseby said: "To be honest it's hard to imagine landlords deliberately keeping their properties vacant. I think if a shop is lettable, it tends to get snapped up pretty quick.

"But sometimes a landlord or an agent may be holding out for an unrealistic rent, so this could be a way of stopping the happening." 

Iain Wilson, from the business group Love Holt, said that while Holt had a lively centre, other high streets were struggling due to a number of reasons, and merely introducing one or two new rules was unlikely to revive them. 

Mr Wilson said the main reason high streets were declining was the rise of internet shopping, and the new measures were unlikely to address that. 

He said: "As long as it's cheaper to operate an online business there's going to be an issue on the high streets."

Mr Wilson said owners of heritage listed business units avoided paying rates, which could lead to longer vacancies than for other units. 

He added that while there was nothing wrong with "charity shops", town centres needed to maintain a good business mix in order to stay vibrant.  

Carl Smith

Great Yarmouth Borough Council leader Carl Smith has hailed the Town Deal vision as "a chance of a lifetime." - Credit: Archant

In Great Yarmouth, where more than 20pc of shops are empty, the borough council says it is already "ahead of the game" with a series of projects and funding in place to "repurpose" town centre shops left behind by a shift away from high street shopping, accelerated by the pandemic.

Carl Smith, leader of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, said regenerating the town centre was already a priority under its £20.1m Town Deal, and Future High Streets funding and that 22 empty properties had been identified as ones that could be brought back into use with a particular focus on the upper storeys and the potential for residential.