Nottingham City Council have undertaken a survey of the vacancies in the city centre to support its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to develop a long-term vision to diversify its offer to attract more people to live, work and visit the city. The report has highlighted new options that can fill these vacancies to reflect a more diverse city centre. These include creating a night-time economy, as well as new leisure activities whilst increasing the public realm space in the city centre and aligning it to its new vision for its Broadmarsh centre.
Nottingham city centre is the main commercial retail and hospitality/leisure centre for the city and the urban area of up to two million people. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, Nottingham had a moderate position as a retail destination, but had still experienced the closure of some national brands such as BHS and Allders. Since the Pandemic, the main shopping centre intu has gone bankrupt, which caused a long-term renovation in the Broadmarsh shopping centre to stop, and other major retailers to close – Debenhams, Burtons, Miss Selfridge.
The city needs to solve some of the short-term retail vacancy issues and address the long term needs of a city this size – how to get people back into cities, how to get consumers spending, how to encourage the market back after a series of shocks.
Nottingham City Council commissioned a fact finding survey of the city centre as part of the LGA’s Economic Growth Advisers programme to identify where the vacancies are, what drives them, who the landowners are and various strategies to address the issues identified. The survey was conducted by Fisher Hargreaves Proctor who are a large local property agency based in the city. The study was conducted in Summer 2021, while retail was open after the various lockdowns. The survey was conducted by their staff and included face to face/street by street interviews, as well as with customers on their internal database in terms of new lettings.
The survey showed that the Nottingham City Centre vacancy rate is 13 per cent. This is better than expected given the COVID-19 lockdowns, the rise of online retail and the vulnerable position of Nottingham city centre pre-lockdown.
The survey highlighted the key advantages that Nottingham has as well as its disadvantages. Its advantages include a strong local market, a good-sized pedestrian core, and an opening up of on street trading for hospitality businesses. There is good access for people into and out of the city, with an excellent bus and tram network. Nottingham also benefits from a rise in “competitive socialising” – not just hospitality, but gaming/escape rooms and nights out with some extra action/interaction, which appeals to locals, students, and visitors.
The disadvantages are that some key size and formats of spaces for retailers are not available in the often heritage buildings in the city centre. The Broadmarsh/intu shopping centre collapse has meant an element of blight on the southern edge of the city, impacting previously dynamic retail streets like Listergate. And although there are large areas of good, pedestrianized streets, there are some key pinch points that need to be resolved – crossing Canal Street at Carrington Street, Kings Street/Queens Street which is busy with bus drop off points and Victoria Centre to Clumber Street.
The survey has outlined key recommendations to address some of the disadvantages of the City Centre. This has had a number of positive impacts for the city centre retail team, the Nottingham Business Improvement District (BID) and the planning and regeneration team. Also, Nottingham City Council is the landowner on a number of the retail/high street sites and so has both the cost (e.g. rates) and benefit of letting empty units. In total, Nottingham City Council is the landowner of about 35 per cent of land and property in the city, and directly manages over 50 retail properties.
The key recommendations are:
- Focus on Listergate/Low Pavement/Bridlesmith Gate as areas of short-term vacancy - create low-cost entry routes, provide move in grants for new operators, dress the empty units with vinyls in the short term, provide activation on the streets to get more colour and vibrancy. One example is getting a carbon neutral pop-up shop on Bridlesmith Gate, which had messages and workshop style activity that promoted low carbon messages and the city’s carbon neutral by 2028 mission, CN28 goals.
- Create a Property Ownership register – which allows strategic discussions to take place between landowners, agents, property and regeneration teams in the city council. For example, on Listergate, a joined-up conversation with Fraser Group, Nottingham City Council, agents and other landowners to address the short-term vacancy issues. This would be run by Nottingham City Council, in collaboration with the agents and key developers in the city, and supported by the Nottingham Business Improvement District (BID).
- Developing the Broadmarsh vision - This will help open up the north south axis in the city, connecting Victoria Centre in the north, through Old Market Square in the middle to Broadmarsh then Nottingham Station in the south of the city centre. The Broadmarsh vision is a wide-ranging piece of work commissioned through World Renowned Heatherwick Design Studios. Their proposal was for a Green Heart on the old Listergate/Carrington Street crossing point, retention of the frame of the old shopping centre, and a mixed use development, meeting the specific needs and aspirations of local people – encompassing sport, leisure, culture, business start up and meeting spaces.
- Pedestrianisation options and strategy - The work has supported the case for more pedestrianisation in the city. Nottingham has really benefitted from pedestrianizing the up and coming Hockley/Creative Quarter/Lace Market heart of the old city commercial centre. Pavement cafes and a vibrant day and night-time economy are working well in that part of the city. The report highlighted some further areas to work on – King Street/Queen Street junctions, Carrington Street.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The work has led to two specific pieces of follow up work.
- A 12-month action plan to fix vacancies, improve vibrancy and more public realm spaces etc which incorporate the key recommendations from the survey. This will be part of the city’s pitch for Shared Prosperity Funding – improving pride in place.
- A longer-term vision for the city – linked to the longer-term projects such as Broadmarsh but making sure the strategies and tactical plans align.
- Engaging with the commercial sector (in this case commercial agents) is critical to get the full understanding of the dynamics in the market from the front line. Agents talk daily with potential operators, so their insight is invaluable, and not easy for local councils to connect with.
- The commercial sector sees the need for short term benefits (e.g. rent/rate deals) but also need to see the bigger picture. So, for instance the pedestrianisation of the city centre is seen as a positive to operators, despite some short-term issues regarding access. This is because they can see the long-term vision of creating a more people focused city centre, that is welcoming, and interesting to go to.