Empty shops blighting the High Street – and a development plan suggestion for dealing with them

The closed Argos store in Ramsgate

As Wilko announces it is going into administration with 400 shops and 12,000 jobs under threat, the likelihood is another empty unit in Ramsgate town and at Westwood.

Ramsgate is already suffering from unused shops in the town where large retailers, such as New Look and Argos, have exited large and prominent properties.

In recent years the exodus has included J C Rooks – now occupied by Hidden Treasures – Sports Direct/USC, destined for smaller retail and flats, Paynes grocers and HSBC bank, which Sugar Rush hopes to move to due to planned development at its current site.

Further back and the exodus includes Woolworth, River Island, Thomas Cook, Blockbusters, Wimpy and so many more businesses large and small, while at Westwood names such as Debenhams, Top Shop, Monsoon, Five Guys, Carphone Warehouse and more disappeared.

The same picture can be drawn for Margate which also lost big stores such as Woolworth and M&S amongst others.

More to come?

Wilko is bringing in administrators

Nick Drewe, retail expert and founder of online discount platform Wethrift, is predicting more brand closures to come.

He said: “Today’s news regarding the collapse of Wilko is, unfortunately, another example of the many retailers falling victim to the ongoing cost of living crisis and economic uncertainty.

“Consumers facing the repercussions of rising interest rates, energy prices and a lack of salary increases, means that the pressure to secure the very best prices and deals on everyday products is now greater than ever.

“Following the collapse of Woolworths in 2009, many turned to Wilkos as an alternative for sourcing a huge range of items or goods, at a reasonable price. From pick-and-mix sweets and pet food, to cleaning products and even homewares, Wilkos has arguably become a staple of the British high street over the past two decades.

“Unfortunately, despite the fact that Wilko’s has historically offered its customers competitive prices, chains such as B&M, Home Bargains and The Range seem to have overtaken in terms of popularity, availability of stock, and become the ‘go-to’ stores for bargain hunters.

“With the collapse of Joules, Made.com, Cath Kidston, Paperchase and many other well-known brands during the past year, it certainly seems as though Wilko won’t be the last victim of these trying times before the year is over.”

Development Plan

A Ramsgate Development Plan compiled for Thanet council in 2021 says the shift of big retailers from Ramsgate (although the same is applicable for Margate but seems to have less impact in Broadstairs) is a problem that needs to be addressed.

It says: “The shift of big retailers to edge of town locations meant there is excess retail capacity in the town centre. There are arguably now too many shops given the amount of spending that is taking place.

“Structural changes to the retail sector and the low socio-economic demographic of the local population have resulted in town centre vacancy rates which are higher than the national average. Vacancy rates are an average of 23.4%.

“Several large retail units have been standing empty for years. Predominantly fixed at high rents and with high business rates, they are unaffordable for independent businesses and social enterprises.

“Their dilapidated condition now requires significant investment.

New Look in Ramsgate is another chain now gone from the High Street

“Ramsgate has a growing low price, retail offering, aimed at a population with higher-than-average unemployment rates and low disposable income, making the town centre less attractive to visitors. “It does however still have a major post office,  major banks and building societies, butchers, green grocers, pharmacies, newsagents as well as many cafes, both independents and national chains.

“Ramsgate town centre supports over 240 businesses which employ approximately 2000 people. The corridor from Harbour Street up to the top of High Street (Chatham Street junction) consists of 96 commercial units.

“(At the time of the report) there were 15 empty units either for sale or to let which amounts to 15.6% empty units. If we consider only the pedestrianised part of High and Harbour Street, the percentage is even higher at 64 units in total with 12 currently empty which amounts to 18.7% of empty premises.

“Maintaining a pleasant environment has been problematic, with litter, graffiti and antisocial behaviour being constant problems. The main multi storey car park though under lease to the District Council is very poorly maintained and off-putting to visitors.”

Looking at solutions

Ramsgate town Photo Jim Brady

The report says a solution is to restructure and redefine the town, suggesting a combination of residential, live-work accommodation and community hubs to sit alongside a mix of national and independent retail provision and workspaces, and services to help the whole community thrive. It points to a growing creative industries sector primarily made up of small or sole traders as one avenue to explore.

It suggests for Ramsgate focusing on Harbour Street and the pedestrianised areas of the High Street, King Street and Queen Street to connect the regenerated harbourside and seafront to the town.

The proposal says buying up or leasing a corridor of key empty and derelict properties running through the town centre, (possibly via a Property Trust) could then be put to social/ commercial use, such as:

  • art centres/studios/live galleries
  • wellbeing centres focusing on the nutritional health of young families and older population.
  • a large indoor event space which would hold regular live entertainment and events to inspire.
  • a recycling workshop / repair café to help young and unemployed people build skills and gain confidence to move into further education, apprenticeships, and other career opportunities.
  • The scheme would include flats above ground floor level to provide housing (particularly for single people), retain residential space in the town centre and provide revenue for the project.

The report suggests: “A programme of land and site assembly through acquisition and compulsory purchase of key sites – including those with long term vacancies and those of strategic significance – should be used to restructure the retail offer, creating managed workspaces, improved retail units attractive to independent retailers and social enterprises.

“Creating a fund to support the development of two or more significant opportunity sites in the town would allow us to bring forward quality residential accommodation and allow for other private sector investment.

“The provision of workspace would attract inward investors, particularly those that require good access to London via high-speed services, allowing them to engage directly with the network of businesses already in the district and the wider creative industries.”

Levelling Up

Some of the suggestions in the report are in the early stages of being carried out under the £19.8m Levelling Up Fund allocation for Ramsgate and the High Street Fund.

These include Thanet council’s imminent purchase of the former haberdashery shop in Broad Street which is earmarked to provide 96 work spaces for small, creative businesses and a skills and careers centre. There are also plans for a highway scheme which will make improved connections between the town and harbour.

An artist’s impression of how the haberdashery building could be used

Residential development has also been taking place in the town with flats and smaller retail units planned for 60-68 High Street and 1 to 11 George Street – which comprised of the Pilgrims Hospice shop, Sugar Rush, formerly Cats in Crisis and Simply Danish furniture shop; flats and retail in Queen Street (formerly Sports Direct/USC). Housing has already been established in King Street with more to come at the former Dave Fox Motorcycles unit and flats due for completion at the former Swiss Cottage pub.

Similar, although less extensive, plans exist for Margate, such as the conversion of the  British Heart Foundation site into small retail unts and apartments and the recently opened temporary accommodation at Foy House.

Currently Ramsgate is listed by Completely Retail as having 11 shops up for rent and one for sale. These include the former Argos and HSBC.

Completely Retail only lists one property in Margate town and none for Broadstairs town although the Funicular bar and café at Viking Bay is listed.

A proliferation of small businesses have also opened across the isle taking on some vacant buildings. These include Chuck & Blade, Brew coffee shop, Glam Event Hire, Plan Burrito and, across Thanet, Chunky burgers, Boogie Barber, The Souvlaki, Smoked Street Kitchen and Bar and more.

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