14% of Britain’s shops are empty.
A quick Internet search will reveal this fact and a short walk along many high streets will confirm this alarming statistic. The shop vacancy rates are at an all-time high in Britain, with some of the more deprived areas of the country seeing more than 20% of shops boarded up and empty. London is the least affected city but still has a vacancy rate of 9.4%. It seems that the economic downturn coupled with a drastic change in our shopping habits has taken its toll.
Who or what is to blame? Fingers could be pointed at the low cost websites such as ‘Amazon’ and ‘eBay’ with prices to help ensure people stay at home and order their Christmas presents, rather than visit their local town centre. Central and local Government could be accused of not doing enough to help town centre retailers survive in the world we live in today. Or simply, the diminishing existence of high-street shops could also be accepted as a fact of life in a 21st Century Britain.
However, there are some success stories. In a once popular but now unfashionable arcade in Coventry you will find an old Fish and Chip shop turned innovative theatre space – Theatre Absolute and Britain’s first ‘Shop Front Theatre’. Established as a professional theatre company in 1992, Theatre Absolute have toured extensively and won Time Out Live and two coveted Edinburgh Fringe First Awards.
Following a trip to Chicago where the ‘storefront’ theatre scene thrives, Director and writer, Chris O’Connell, along with his partner and Producer, Julia Negus, approached Coventry City Council with this model and outlined their ambitions and ideas regarding the large empty space. Favourable terms were agreed and the closed down Fish and Chip shop was soon transformed into a location for the production, rehearsal and performance of award winning theatre. Not only does it allow for affordable access to theatre, its educational projects have helped people from all walks of life across the city, specifically young underachievers. Chris O’Connell explains, “The shop offers diverse and affordable opportunities for potential participants to engage; it is centrally located, and we believe it can tackle problems of social isolation, offer opportunity to those who are not socially engaged, or to those who lack skills and confidence. Ultimately it can be a community arts space that helps to build community cohesion. “
There is no denying that the transformation from run-down empty shop into an active, dynamic work space has been an influential factor in creating a positive multiplier effect to its immediate surroundings and to Coventry as a whole; at a previous event ran by Theatre Absolute and their team of helpful volunteers over 700 people visited the shop in one day.
This model proves that despite arts funding cuts and such a large number of shop premises falling away from the market, success can be found in a recession through innovation.