One year after its launch, an innovative pilot scheme from Oxford City Council and Makespace Oxford to transform the use of vacant shops across Oxfordshire is being studied by other councils.
Initially launched in February 2021, the £1.875m “Meanwhile in Oxfordshire...” programme has been so successful in its first year that other local authorities are contacting Oxford City Council for advice on launching their own schemes based on the “Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…” model of good practice in helping to revitalise city centres.
The programme helps small start-ups and social enterprises find a home by re-purposing empty retail units into independent shops, cultural venues and creative spaces. In turn, this breathes new life back into Oxfordshire’s high streets and urban centres, supporting economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.
“Meanwhile in Oxfordshire...” sources suitable spaces and matches them to the needs of prospective residents, then fits them out for use. The programme team works closely with local residents and businesses to ensure new tenants of each unit reflect, represent and meet the needs of the area.
Alongside supporting businesses, jobs and footfall, the “Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…” project was targeted to help tackle the rising number of vacant commercial units and to diversify the “mix and offer” of businesses. This resulted in an increase in footfall and employment opportunities to aid high street recovery.
Lead by Oxford City Council, Makespace Oxford were secured as the key delivery partner. The “Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…” programme is a county-wide partnership between Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the District Councils, with funding from the government’s Getting Building Fund. The project is due to run for a further two years, with a possible extension.
One year on, the programme’s key achievements include:
- nearly 22,000 square feet of space secured
- 18 leases secured
- 16 units reanimated
- 18 organisations supported
- 68 jobs created
Programme participant Y.O.U Underwear is now the UK’s highest-scoring B-corp (a company verified as meeting high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability) and highest-scoring ethical fashion brand in the world. The “Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…” programme has provided the business with their first shop in the Covered Market, with hopes to continue.
The Community Works in Frideswide Square also houses a number of creative organisations, including Oxford Playhouse and Oxford Poetry Library.
Since launching the programme with Oxford City Council, Makespace has received over 340 applications from independent businesses, organisations and enterprises, indicating substantial demand for affordable workspace across the county.
Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council, said:
“The Meanwhile in Oxfordshire project is one of a range of measures taken by the City Council to support businesses to recover from the impact of the pandemic. Over the past year, a variety of premises have been creatively transformed into the perfect spaces for entrepreneurs, creatives and social enterprises to start and grow their businesses.
“The project also supports Oxford City Council’s objective to enable an inclusive economy, distributing wealth more equitably across the city, including providing affordable spaces for entrepreneurs, creating jobs and encouraging people to visit our local neighbourhood and city centres.”
Andy Edwards, Makespace Oxford Programme Lead, said:
“With so many vacant units in our urban and town centres across the county, we’re thrilled to be able to help small, independent businesses and organisations take advantage of them and access space without the risk of high rent and lengthy lease agreements.
"The programme allows us to break down barriers to space and give fledgling organisations a unique opportunity to test, develop and deliver their ideas, whilst also reanimating our urban centres and supporting our local economy. We look forward to expanding the initiative further across the county, with spaces now available in Bicester, Didcot, Banbury and Abingdon.”
Phoebe Nicholson, founder of Oxford Poetry Library, said:
“We've been a mobile library operating out of a big purple cargo bike since we were founded in 2017, but having a physical space will make a huge difference to our ability to reach a wider audience, and to grow and thrive as an organisation.”
In the coming months, Makespace will continue to focus on bringing shared and private work spaces on board, both in Oxford City Centre and beyond. Current spaces available through the programme include a converted factory in Bicester, a private studio/ office space in Banbury, and two large shared workspaces in Abingdon and Didcot.
Applications for space also remain open, and anyone who is interested is encouraged to apply.