John-Paul Flintoff visits Empty Shops Network pop up gallery

This was written in 2009, at the very start of the empty shops movement, for the Sunday Times Magazine (although they never printed it). But it shows how even then, the Empty Shops Network were talking about prototyping and testing ideas, being agile, and pushing the case that funding might not be the solution. You can read the full article by John-Paul Flintoff here.

John-Paul Flintoff and Empty Shops Network founder Dan Thompson are appearing together at the Big Little Peace Festival on 18th September.

“How long does it take to set up an art gallery? Dan Thompson reckons he can do it overnight. “Or we could aim for next week,” he adds cheekily. “If you can get a photographer by then.”

In the event, it takes him ten days, from scratch.

First, he had to find a venue. His “usual contacts” – estate agents and shopping-centre managers – gave him several options. He chose a former toyshop in Worthing’s Guildbourne shopping centre, empty for nearly a year.

The shop has cheap plasticky carpets, damaged plaster, grim overhead lighting and sooty patches on the ceiling. On one side stood a newsagent, on the other a slot-machine parlour. Directly opposite were a greengrocer and a youth-oriented clothes shop. In the hallway stood several coin-operated rides for toddlers, including one with a child-sized Rupert Bear.

“I don’t want to be too poncy,” Thompson tells me, “but I quite like the aesthetic of a 1970s shopping centre.”

In February, roughly ten per cent of all shops in the UK were empty, and the number was rising fast. The analysts Experian were predicting that one in six would have closed by the end of the year.

This put landlords in an unfamiliar position. For ten years, with property prices rising, they didn’t mind paying rates on shops that were empty – because the price rise more than covered any shortfall. But with prices falling, property owners needed to do something fast.

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