What should be done with Sheffield’s empty shops?

This week's Voices debate addresses the upheaval on the high street and how empty shops in Sheffield city centre could be revived.

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 11:41 am
Updated Thursday, 28th November 2019, 6:00 am
Chapel Walk in Sheffield has been struggling as building work has hit delays.

Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City & Culture, Sheffield University

The relocation of Next to The Moor has seen the issue of empty shops on main retail areas become centre stage again for residents of Sheffield. For the past five years the University and the Council have been working together through Renew Sheffield to look at innovative ways in which empty premises can be re-used for artistic creative and maker spaces.

Parts of The Moor and Castlegate have been transformed by this approach and upwards of 20 successful projects have been supported through this scheme. However, the replacing of one shop with another with reduced rents, subsidised rates and colonisation by artists is only a short term solution and what really needs to be considered is the future of the High Street overall.

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For the past decade, the continued growth of online demand has not been understood totally by consumers in terms of the impact their change of shopping patterns have had on the retail offers on the high streets and thoroughfares of our towns and cities. So a new and bold approach is needed in Sheffield and one that is now emerging with the council’s successful shortlisting of its bid to the Future High Street Funds.

Now we need to shape our concept of a cultural boulevard, city centre housing, areas of play and greening of the streets which is being developed. Now it is up to you the people of Sheffield the residents, users, businesses and workers in the city centre to get involved.

Retail will remain as the success of the Heart of the City developments and the Moor demonstrate, but the city centre should be more than a parade of shops and bars but needs to be child-friendly, future-proofed against climate change, transport issues and also the changeable habits of the consumers. Help us make this happen.

Daniel Allen, Sheffield University student

Sheffield shops can only survive if they offer something the internet can’t.

Looking out of my car window at a retail park last week, I found myself arguing: “Any item in any of these shops could be ordered in a matter of seconds and be at my doorstep by this evening.”

Window shopping has almost been wiped out by what I’m labelling ‘Windows shopping’, as the world-changing likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have allowed online browsing to eliminate the public’s need for the high street with their innovative technology.

Sheffield is a city that has certainly felt the effects of this. While the big brands make business seem bountiful in the city centre, a trip just 20 minutes outside – between Dronfield and Killamarsh – will show you just how serious this problem is, as more shops are shuttered off than are in operation.

However, if there is a city that can change this problem, it’s Sheffield - the friendliest place in the UK full of forward-thinking citizens.

While supporting local businesses is a good thing, a line needs to be drawn between supporting businesses that are worth supporting and supporting businesses for the sake of it.

After all, the point of a shop is to buy something for your benefit, not to buy something for the benefit of the shop. There comes a point where buying from a local business becomes charitable rather than beneficial for the buyer.

As selfish as that may seem, I believe we should be giving to charities more than local businesses. Charity shops are recycling what we already have and are good for the environment, leaving multiple reasons to shop there. We should fill some of the empty shop spaces with charitable organisations, and encourage people to visit them more and more.

On top of that, the high streets need to offer something the internet can’t – experiences and physical needs.

Barbershops and hairdressers have been an example of this over recent years, but unfortunately, there are now so many that business is thinly spread between them all.

Therefore, innovative thinking is required; while I may not know exactly what type of shop is needed on the streets, I do know that there is no point trying to start a type of company that is drastically dying out elsewhere. Innovation is necessary within the areas of charity, experience, and/or physical needs.

Diane Jarvis, Sheffield BID Manager

With some of the city’s national retail brands moving to the impressively redeveloped units on The Moor, and the council’s own Heart of the City II development scheme starting to take shape, the number of shops, restaurants and cafés has increased and the offer is becoming more diverse than ever.

That said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the city centre remains in a state of transition, and as traders opt for new premises, it does leave behind some empty spaces. It is clear that city centres are no longer just about retail however, and it is my belief that many of these obsolete properties can be converted for other commercial and residential purposes.

Sheffield, like every other city in the UK today, is also having to deal with several broader economic challenges. So now more than ever, it is crucial to provide a vibrant and well-rounded city centre that combines retail, culture, community and leisure elements. We need to focus on making the city centre an attractive and welcoming environment to work and socialise, both in the day and into the evening.

While vacant units are often perceived to signal decline and become hot spots for flyposting, vandalism and graffiti, they also present an incredible and rare opportunity to reimagine a more purposeful high street that meets the needs of today’s market.

Sheffield BID has been a funding partner to the hugely successful ReNew Sheffield – a collaborative project that supports creative meanwhile uses for empty buildings, such as pop-up shops and other start-up businesses. We also use vacant shops for our own visitor experiences and events, including Santa’s Post Office in December and LEGO-themed workshops in the summer (over 3,000 children).

The announcement that Sheffield made it to Phase 2 of the bidding process for the Future High Streets Fund is also an encouraging development and shows excellent partnership working within the city. With the high-street landscape in the UK changing all the time, it is imperative that local government, our universities, the BID, plus the cultural and business communities, all work together to help shape this change.

Audra Lee, Sheffield University student

In August, Sky News reported that one in ten shops on the High Street were sitting empty with other earlier reports that it was far higher - up to one in five in Doncaster. This reminded me of a report in The Guardian in February that said the city of Sheffield had lost 17.8 per cent of its shops, which prompted a discussion as to why this was the case.

While it is claimed that £1 of every £5 of shopping is now spent online, some people blame the decline of Sheffield city centre on the 1990 opening of Meadowhall.

So let's talk about, but not blame, Meadowhall. One of the UK's biggest shopping malls just three miles from the city centre, it attracts approximately 30 million people a year to its 290 shops – my mum absolutely loves it. It has 12,000 free parking spaces. As a parent, I have long yearned for a park for the kids in the middle of Sheffield like the one in Meadowhall – back in 1990 the mall even had a creche so that shoppers could walk around without their kids tugging on them. It did some big things right by harnessing the spending power of two huge groups of consumers, car drivers and parents.

Foresight such as this might be what lead to Meadowhall's success. A 2015 review by professional services firm PwC revealed that nearly two thirds of spend at Meadowhall comes from those who live within the Sheffield City Region.

It's the big retail players that have taken over and the independents have almost completely disappeared. There is a small part of Meadowhall dedicated to independent shops aptly namely 'The Lanes' - for me it's like going down memory lane in the Sheffield city centre I grew up in. The Gallery shops in the city, near the old market, were the best part of the weekend for a child and the market stalls were in abundance - indoor and outdoor but most of this has now gone. The only fast food retailers I can remember as a child were KFC and Wimpy and they were places you went once or twice a year as a treat. Somewhere along the way we gave in to the idea that having more meant having the big brands so we could all be the same before it was fashionable to be different.

This still leaves the question - what should Sheffield do with its empty shops? There are some great independent retailers but they tend to be in the parts of town that are associated with student culture where the Sheffield natives don't tend to frequent and in my opinion should be spread widely to draw consumers in and not just focused on one area or one group of consumers. We really need to cherish and support the independents like we did in the past and welcome them in to the future. Sheffield's empty shops are ideal for trying out new business ideas, community sessions and creative ventures – or for the use for anything that generates value if not wealth.