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TO LET? Tackling the issue of ‘no board’ vacant units

A large historic building with a For Sale board placed on it

40% of visibly vacant town or city centre units, on average, have no agent board. IPM’s Strategic Development Lead and founder of The Vacant Shops Academy, Iain Nicholson explains why this is a problem and what place leaders and managers might do to intervene and mitigate it.

From the perspective of a business owner or property agent walking in a location and thinking about opening a new store or venue it makes it harder when for every five visibly vacant units you see, two give no clue as to whether they’re actually available.

For place leaders and managers, if a vacant unit is not being proactively marketed then there must be a chance it’ll stay vacant for longer, with all that can mean in terms of deteriorating look: impacting negatively on the reputation of the place, attracting anti-social behaviour, putting people off visiting or dwelling longer and discouraging would-be occupiers from investing there; plus all the costs in terms of lost rent and maybe business rates, and getting it back in to use.

What is the number of ‘no board’ vacant units in your place?

The 40% figure is based on data collated across commissioned locations for The Vacant Shops Academy in 2022–23. While currently a small data set – 17 different ‘high street’ locations with 316 visibly vacant units between them – nevertheless, it feels instructive in the conversation about a role for places in tackling vacancy, whether that be councils or BIDs, where there is one, or other stakeholders like civic societies or chambers of commerce.

That 40% is an average for the audit locations. Some of the 17 locations had higher figures, so we shouldn’t assume that an agent or landlord is always proactively working to get a vacant unit let. The commercial property market has its own challenges and there is a lengthy list of reasons why a landlord might not pursue a letting. This is frustrating from a place perspective, but often a sound, understandable financial stance for the property owner to take.

So, as place leaders and managers, what can we do?

The first step is to try to engage with the landlord and encourage them to instruct an agent. At the very least this will give you an insight into their circumstances and their reasoning for not having a sales board. Locally based agents can help on this too, if you’ve already built a good relationship, and can ask if they have tried to get an instruction for a unit(s) and why they were unsuccessful.

This all gives you an understanding of the unit’s backstory, the barriers to letting, and a potential way forward.

On the positive side, you might that find that the unit may look vacant but is actually let to a new incoming tenant who’s just not started fit it out. But the answer may be one or more of the following:

  • The previous tenant is still paying rent on an unexpired lease or went into administration, so the landlord does not yet have control of the property;
  • There may be significant costs to bringing the unit back into play which the landlord is unable or unwilling to fund, and potential tenants feel the same;
  • There are development or refurbishment plans in the pipeline;
  • A sizeable proportion of the vacant space is on upper floors which are of less interest to would-be occupiers;
  • The unit was a former department store and so too large for current demand and needs splitting.

There are other reasons, but those above point to potential roles the place can play.

An increasing number of councils have initiated a grant fund or rates relief schemes to support incoming tenants with the costs of fit-out so helping break that barrier to re-letting. In some cases, this allows for the splitting of larger units and dealing with the less desired upper floors.

Places that are proactive on vacancy can support efforts to identify and attract would be new occupiers, for example by highlighting empty and available units in their locations themselves and developing connections with property agents and owners of expanding businesses on social media platforms.

Others are creating pop up shop or ‘meanwhile… use’ initiatives to allow short term re-use of units to get them back into play or at least installing vinyls or decorating hoardings to make them look better while the tenant search continues.

Key to all of this is partnership working – a consistent theme of IPM’s work in places and that of the High Streets Task Force. Tackling empty shops issues is another of the challenges in our towns and city centres where working together, in this case between agents, landlords, businesses, community, councils and BIDs, demonstrably makes a difference.


About the author


Formed in 2006, the Institute of Place Management is the international professional body that supports people committed to developing, managing and making places better.

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