We need to work together to shape the changing high street

Published: Friday, 15th March 2019

Oxford City Council has said local and national government, landowners and local residents need to work together to shape the changing nature of the high street in Oxford.

As retail vacancy rates rise across the UK, Oxford too is seeing the impact of changing shopping habits, with an increase in the number empty shops.

This is in part a legacy of the opening of Westgate Oxford, which has resulted in an additional 85 retail units in the city centre compared with two years ago, with a number of shops vacating high street premises to relocate into the new development.

Nevertheless, the challenges being felt by many national retailers, with the rise of internet shopping and high street outlets such as LK Bennett, HMV and its Fopp Records stores, and Coast recently going into administration, has also left a mark on Oxford’s city centre.

In response, Oxford City Council is working with other major Oxford retail property owners to identify steps that can be taken to address the situation.  

Last year the Council established the Oxford City Centre Taskforce – which includes city centre businesses, local authorities and landlords – to work in partnership to develop the city centre and increase economic prosperity.

Annually, the City Council also provides £2.3m in Small Business Rates Relief to 743 businesses, and £267,000 of Discretionary Revaluation Relief to 179 businesses. On top of this, following Government changes announced in the autumn budget, 706 retail businesses across Oxford will receive Retail Relief, sharing a pot of £2.6m.

The number of high street retail units in Oxford city centre, including the Clarendon Centre, has increased from about 431 to 516 (19.7%) with the opening of Westgate Oxford. The new shopping centre has 125 units, compared to 40 in the old centre, and has brought a wide range of new retailers to the city, including a flagship John Lewis, to add to Oxford’s role as a regional centre for retail and culture.

Including the 63 units in Oxford Covered Market, which is owned and operated by the City Council, the city centre has about 579 retail units.

The number of vacant retail units in Oxford city centre is currently 72 – 12.4% of the 579 retail units. This includes 57 vacant units in the high street (14.6% of 391), 11 in Westgate Oxford (8.8% of 125), and four in Oxford Covered Market (6.3% of 63).

However, the real vacancy rate is lower than 12.4% as this figure is based on a simple count of empty units in the city centre; it does not take into account units that are let but where the company has not yet moved in, or units that are being redeveloped or refurbished. The vacant units in Cornmarket Street’s Northgate House, which is about to undergo a £36m redeveloped by Jesus College, has been included in the data.

Research by the Centre for Cities, released 2018, found that, as a proportion of all commercial property in the city centre, Oxford had significantly more retail than the UK average – 48% compared to 26%.

Councillor Mary Clarkson, Executive Board Member for City Centre and Culture, said: “With the opening of Westgate Oxford, the number and range of successfully trading shops, restaurants and cafes in Oxford city centre has significantly increased, but the city centre is still in a state of transition as traders move to the new shopping centre and Oxford has not been immune from the broader economic influences and the way the internet and shopping habits have changed high streets across the world.                                                   

“Oxford City Council officers have been working tirelessly to re-let vacant units, and I think people are seeing that work pay dividends in Oxford Covered Market. We have split units to meet the needs of new traders, encouraged pop-ups and incubator units, and helped traders promote the market and create more of an experience. The market is now 93.7% let but, due to the work planned on the few remaining vacant units, we are currently turning away enquiries.

“The City Council, Oxford colleges, Westgate Oxford, the Clarendon Centre and others, who live and work in the city centre every day, care deeply about the future of the Oxford high street, and the City Council is working closely with these partners to help the city centre adapt so it offers what people want and need, whether that’s retail, office space, culture and community uses, or a thriving evening economy. We were particularly pleased that Jesus College, on the City Council’s recommendation, reduced the size of the retail units in Northgate House to help create an independent shopping quarter around the Covered Market.

“We are keen to work with landlords who we have not been able to engage so far, particularly those that own national or international property portfolios and are not as close to Oxford, so they can learn from the good work that is being carried out to improve Oxford city centre. One area of particular concern for the City Council is the Golden Cross, not least because it is such a prominent entrance to the Covered Market.                                                                   

“But the slowdown in high street retail is a national structural change, and it requires more than just the best efforts of Oxford’s institutions. We welcomed the Government reducing rates for small businesses last year, but there is more nationally that can be done to help high streets across the country. However, ultimately, the high street is changing and we – local and national government, landowners and local residents – need to support local businesses and work together to shape that change.”

Oxford City Council owns 66 high street retail units that it directly leases to retailers on short-term leases. Of these, just three (4.5%) are currently vacant:

  • 6 Queen Street: This unit is currently undergoing a major refurbishment, which is due to be completed in about April, because it was structurally unsound and therefore not able to be re-let
  • 3 George Street: This unit is awaiting redevelopment
  • The former Heroes café unit in Ship Street: The City Council is in discussion with a prospective tenant, who cannot be named at this stage, about opening in this unit

Following a series of openings over recent months, just four of 63 units (6.3%) are currently vacant in Oxford Covered Market:

  • One third of the former Hayman’s unit: The City Council is in discussion with prospective tenants, who cannot be named at this stage, about opening in this unit
  • The former Dragon’s Den unit: The City Council is currently investigating the possibility of splitting the unit in two to meet current demand. A planning application could be submitted later this year
  • The former McCarthy’s Fruit and Veg unit: The City Council received planning permission last year to split the unit into three kiosks. Work is expected to start later this year
  • The former Lindsey’s unit: The City Council is working with Oxford Preservation Trust to restore and preserve original and historic features within the unit. Work is expected to start later this year

The City Council owns the freehold on 30 retail units that are on 100-year or more leases, and on the Westgate Centre, which is leased to Westgate Oxford for 250 years. The City Council does not directly lease these units to traders.