Leeds: An empty city centre shop - any ideas?

With the recession leaving towns and cities with as much as a quarter of their shops lying empty, it's feared some high streets will never be the same again. Grant Woodward reports on how the future looks for Leeds

Five years ago Leeds was dubbed the 'Knightsbridge of the North' by travel writers for its vibrant mix of buzzy shops, bars and restaurants.

But to a visitor walking through the city centre today that description by the world-renowned Lonely Planet guide may appear just a little outdated.

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The recession is officially over but its effects are still highly visible, with empty premises on some of the city's key shopping streets.

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There are currently 200 vacant retail units in Leeds city centre, with big name chains like Borders joining smaller independent businesses on the casualty list.

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This isn't a phenomenon restricted to Leeds. The whole country has seen firms shut up shop, leaving gaping holes in high streets across Britain.

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Research by the Local Data Company shows retail vacancy rates across Britain rose two per cent in the past six months of last year to an average of 12 per cent, with some towns seeing as much as 24 per cent of their shops lying empty.

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The figures have sparked fears that cities such as Bradford, where nearly a quarter of shops lie empty, could be on an irreversible downward spiral as a result of the financial crisis.

There is also growing concern that this spread of boarded-up high streets will lead to an increase in crime in towns and cities.

So just how badly has Leeds been affected?

Well, it depends who you believe.

Six months ago consumer analysts Experian launched a Retail Risk Ranking, looking at the number of unoccupied shops in major towns and cities and identifying which were most at risk of suffering further closures.

Out of 15 top UK centres, Leeds was ranked second highest in terms of empty shops back in July, with 33 per cent of its units sitting vacant.

Only Liverpool was higher and Leeds' traditional shopping rivals such as Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow fared considerably better.

Worse was to come. Experian predicted that by the start of 2010 the proportion of empty shops in Leeds would climb to around 37 per cent as the effects of the recession continued to bite.

But is that an accurate picture?

Not according to Cath Follin, whose position as head of city centre and markets for Leeds City Council means it's her job to know how well Leeds is faring on the retail front.

She says there are 1,166 shops in the city centre, of which 200 are currently unoccupied, a vacancy rate of 17 per cent.

That includes 54 vacant stalls at Kirkgate Market and also unoccupied units in the city's shopping arcades.

"And I think that's a little misleading because shopping arcades like the St John's Centre and Victoria Quarter are fully let," she said.

"Trinity (the scheme that will replace Trinity Arcade, Burton Arcade and Leeds Shopping Plaza) is signing up tenants, The Core (formerly The Headrow Centre) has let many of its external units and the Merrion Centre is in negotiations for another four units."

She said the underlying strength in retail in Leeds is demonstrated by the fact that US clothing chain American Apparel is going into Briggate and the last remaining unit in what used to be the Allders site on the Headrow has now been let to a Swedish home store.

"I don't think the new names coming in would be investing in Leeds if they weren't confident about the future of retail in this city."

But not everyone sees empty units as necessarily being a bad thing. Some have seized on the issue as a golden opportunity to bring something different to the city centre.

A project called 92 Empty Shops in Leeds encourages Loiners to suggest how the vacant premises could be put to better use.

Graphic designers Jen Conway and Jessie Young started the project after noticing how many empty shops there were in the city centre.

"A lot of places have closed because of the recession, which gives us a good opportunity to stop and have a think about how things are," said Jen.

"The city centre seems to have one function and that's shopping. It would be interesting if it became more of a multi-use place.

"We use the library and the art gallery but non-commercial spaces are few and far between. Even public spaces like Millennium Square are often privatised, hosting events that you have to buy tickets for.

"There aren't many places that don't have a commercial agenda, places where you can meet up with other people without having to spend money to be there."

Many critics bemoan the dearth of independent shops in the heart of the city centre, a situation they say wasn't helped by the decision to move niche retailers out of the Corn Exchange and attempt to turn it into an upmarket food emporium.

"I get the impression that rents in the city centre are generally very expensive," said Jen, "which makes it difficult for independent retailers to thrive."

The suggestions from the public as part of the 92 Empty Shops in Leeds project included turning the vacant shops into roller discos, book-swapping venues, language shops where you help someone else speak a different language, public 'living rooms' and diners where office workers can bring their own lunches to eat.

Conway and Young were granted use of an empty stall in Kirkgate Market for three months, which they turned into an education space.

One of the public's suggestions was a Bring Your Own Picnic Caf, which now takes place on the last Wednesday of every month at The Artmarket

and Kunstfreund Gallery, an artist-led space at the Merrion Market in the Merrion Centre, which makes occasional use of the empty units there.

A similar scheme to find an alternative use for the city's empty shops, Art in Unusual Places, is a Leeds-based initiative that turns vacant premises into temporary art galleries.

Launched last December, it's a partnership between Leeds City Council, the business community and cultural sector that allows artists to display their work in the windows of unoccupied units. Shops in Lands Lane, New Briggate and the Merrion Centre have already taken part.

But while such projects may work as a short-term fix, what are the prospects of a recovery for the city centre in the longer term?

Experts like Jonathan Newns, a Leeds-based property consultant, don't think the outlook is nearly as gloomy as others are making out.

"Leeds is probably no worse off than somewhere like Manchester and I think we're through the worst of it," said Mr Newns, from estate agents King Sturge.

"This year there will be a number of retailers going into administration but they will be balanced out by others taking up retail space in the city centre as the confidence comes back into the sector."

He said some empty spaces could be explained by companies dumping shops that weren't making money and opening up elsewhere. But he was confident the vast majority of retailers now in place would stay put for at least the next two years.

"The likes of HMV have taken advantage of the fact that Virgin and Woolworths have gone, so there have been some success stories. The survivors are finding it pretty good going because often their competitors just aren't there any more."

While acknowledging a dearth of independent retailers in the city, he said that was down to simple economics.

"You tend to find that everything grows from the busiest points and that's where the big names are, which means independents tend to feel they get pushed out.

"It's the nature of the world. If more people were coming through their doors then they would be in the prime locations.

"But it's very much a renter's market at the moment in the city centre. People just won't pay top rents any more."

Despite the positive outlook, Mr Newns predicted we still have a long wait for the likes of the 800m Eastgate Quarter shopping development, which is set to boast a John Lewis and a Marks & Spencer among more than 100 retail units.

"It's a massive scheme and if you think values have dropped by 20 to 30 per cent on that scheme you just can't see it being delivered in its current form.

"I think we will have to wait at least another five or six years for it to see the light of day."

The development was scheduled for completion by 2012 but developers Hammerson have said work will not start until at least 2011.

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