THE coronavirus pandemic’s detrimental effect on the economy is no secret, and once bustling shopping centres across the country, now suffering numerous gaps, show the stark reality.

The latest BRC-LDC shop vacancy monitor has revealed that the vacancy rate across the UK increased to 14.1 per cent in the quarter to the end of March 2021, from 13.7 per cent in the last three months of 2020.

It said this represents three years of constantly increasing vacancy rates.

All types of shopping locations reported an increase in vacancies for the period, with a particularly sharp rise at shopping centres.

In Basingstoke’s Festival Place, several retail outlets lie empty, as a range of top brands have fallen victim to multiple lockdowns and forced closures.

Among them are TopShop, Zara, one of H&M’s units, Laura Ashley, Monsoon Accessorize and, most recently and significantly, the town’s three-floor Debenhams store.

With so many empty units, people may feel put-off taking a trip to the shopping centre.

'The embattled high street'

Basingstoke Gazette:

Although it is early days since the reopening of retail in April, due to the the offputting factor of deserted shopping units coupled with hesitancy around returning to potentially busy venues and the financial impact of the pandemic on individuals, councils fear a foot-fall drop.

Speaking previously to the Gazette, Basingstoke council leader Cllr Ken Rhatigan described the period ahead as “retail reshaping itself”, adding that his administration “need to be mindful of that for our strategies to make sure that whatever we offer for Basingstoke is the right offering for the long term”.

And last week, the council announced a it was seeking talented individuals to take part in a new 'Busk Stop' scheme, aimed at "creating positive vibe as we welcome people back into the town".

However, in the meantime, Festival Place has made the decision to brighten up its empty units with a number of arts and entertainment projects.

One example, unveiled earlier this month, is a striking image of novelist Jane Austen created using just snow spray, an ice scraper and a paintbrush.

Festival Place joined forces with Hampshire company Snow Windows Ltd in a bid to “bring a little warmth and positivity back to the embattled high street after a difficult year”, the team told the Gazette.  

'We wanted to give shoppers a reason to turn out again'

Basingstoke Gazette:

Since its inception in 2015, Snow Windows has taken the country by storm, with artist Tom creating magical Christmas scenes in windows at Harvey Nicholls, Costa, Audi and Gaggenau, as well as working his magic in the homes of celebrities like Jamie Oliver, Kirstie Allsopp and Chris Moyles.

But with their busiest season behind them, Tom and his partner Keri Ackling decided to spend the warmer months working on a new project that would give something back to the high street.

"The last few years have been very difficult for the high street, and retail has been hit hard by the pandemic,” says Keri.

“This year more than ever we wanted to find ways to support communities in a Covid-safe way.

“We wanted to give shoppers a reason to turn out again, and hopefully make them smile, so we have been asking shopping centres if they would like to turn their empty units into art spaces for free.

“We had worked in Basingstoke before, doing installations in shops across the town, so we knew it would work well if we could do something with Festival Place.”

Keri and Tom had wanted to keep Snow Windows’ work anonymous, creating artworks that would appear mysteriously and not detract from what they were hoping to achieve, but the distinctive nature of Tom’s work soon led to their discovery.

“It really wasn’t about publicity for us as a company,” said Keri. “We are doing it for free to hopefully create something positive, but we just couldn’t fly under the radar. In the first installation we did in an empty unit, Tom signed his work Bob Sled, in a tribute to the artist Bob Ross and a nod to the snowy nature of the work - but as soon as it started to appear on social media, people worked out who was behind it.”

The artwork at Festival Place took Tom around four hours to create and depicts the novelist Jane Austen, who spent the first 25 years of her life in the borough, as her father was vicar in Steventon.

“All our images carry a positive message and have a local link, and we hope that as well as enjoying the work, people will be inspired to find out more about the history and heritage of their towns,” said Keri.

“We wanted to give people a reason to smile and we hope our installations will encourage people back to the shopping centres and high street – our retailers depend on it.”

'A public arena'

Basingstoke Gazette:

Meanwhile, a nearby window has been decorated with work from students at the town’s Queen Mary College.

An empty retail unit is currently playing host to work created by students of fine art, photography, graphics communication, textiles and art, and craft and design in one of its units.

Tom Cops, teacher of Photography and Graphic Communication at QMC, said: “Over the most recent lockdown, the art students at Queen Mary's College worked hard to develop their projects, creating the work that will be presented at Festival Place.

“Deprived of access to the resources and environment of the classroom, their work has understandably changed, but has remained of an exceptional standard.

“Students from all our disciplines have not only adapted but thrived.

“From images of deserted streets and portraits created over Zoom, to shoes made from recycled materials, this work wouldn't have existed in the same way were it not for the lockdown.

“It's exciting to be able to showcase this work created in isolation in such a public arena."

'No one likes an empty unit'

Basingstoke Gazette:

The Gazette asked Festival Place whether it views these artistic endeavours as a temporary solution to the problem of hesitant shoppers, a method of enticing new retailers to the centre, or a longer-term fix for the empty units.

A spokesperson said: “We’re very lucky at Festival Place that we have the ability to be creative with our empty units. We pride ourselves on being at the heart of the Basingstoke community and are always looking for innovative ways to attract our visitors – giving them something they wouldn’t see anywhere else”.

The team said that “no on likes to see an empty unit” and hope that, while they work to fill them, they can use what could have otherwise been a blot on the centre as a positive opportunity to showcase talent and community spirit.

It is therefore limited in its resolution of bringing businesses to Basingstoke but could have a domino effect: if the shopping centre can bring people back, the hope is that new retailers will follow. While, in the meantime, making use of otherwise unused space.

They continued: “Our vacant units give us the opportunity to showcase some of the incredibly exciting projects that local groups, colleges and charities are working on – something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, certainly not in such a large shopping centre.

“Over the past couple of years we have brought book barns, virtual orchestras, pop-up car shows, art exhibitions and pantos to some of our units and they go down a storm with our visitors.

“No-one likes to see an empty unit, so we like to be able to switch the lights on and bring some fun, creative flair and generally show off just how fantastic our Basingstoke community really is!”