Plan To Make Use Of Vacant Shops in Ely

PUBLISHED: 08:57 04 March 2009 | UPDATED: 10:46 04 May 2010

PLANS for Ely s growing number of vacant shops to be used by community groups have been put forward. At meeting organised by the Ely Perspective group, which aims to regenerate the design and economic future of the city, business leaders discussed plans

PLANS for Ely's growing number of vacant shops to be used by community groups have been put forward.

At meeting organised by the Ely Perspective group, which aims to regenerate the design and economic future of the city, business leaders discussed plans to make better use of the increasing number of vacant shop fronts in the town.

In the past six months, Steeple Gate and Priceless Shoes on Ely High Street have closed, and Woolworths shut its doors on Ely Market Place. On Fore Hill, specialist ladieswear store Mad Hatters ceased trading. According to latest figures data company Experian estimates that one in six high street outlets could go under this year.

Cambridgeshire's Liberal Democrats urged councils to do more to stem the tide.

"District councils have a responsibility for economic development - it's time that they took that responsibility more seriously," said their county officer, Martin Land.

The idea has already been successfully employed in Cambridge city, where two enterprising university students took on a former outdoor clothing shop on Jesus Lane.

The Shop, as it is now called, opened last year, after students negotiated a lease with Jesus College to open a community events space and art gallery.

The city council agreed tax reduction, and the project now hosts a string of drawing classes, art events, and tango classes advertised online and through leafleting.

"You have to have a very committed set of people with different skill sets," said Nikki Goldup, who helps to run The Shop. "It costs £40-£50 a day to run, and you have to think about people who will be there to staff it on a daily basis - they can be volunteers, or people who work and have time to give in the evenings."

Another initiative, The Café Project, started earlier this year in an old beauty salon on the same Cambridge street, but Nikki Goldup warned any prospective Ely groups to be aware of the pitfalls of running a community project. "You will need a funding plan in place before you start - health and safety, entertainments licence, planning permission changes, it all costs. It can be like wading through treacle at times, but a welcoming space for everyone to use is achievable."

David Archer, executive director of development services at East Cambs District Council said ECDC would be sympathetic to anyone who came to them with a temporary use for an empty shop. "We are devising an empty shop strategy which will be discussed when the chief executive meets for his regular briefing with the council leader," said Mr Archer. Owners of empty premises have a three-month rebate on their rates - but after that a full rate is charged.

A list of leaseholders and owners is being drawn up by council officers - and some shop fronts may be "window dressed" by artists, school pupils' artwork, or the council.

Soham, which has a consistently high rate of empty business premises, is a particular target for regeneration - Vision consultants ENTEC are due to come up with a way of filling them as part of their Masterplan-style brief.

Ely Perspective is due to publish its plan to regenerate shop fronts, according to chairman Philip Eden - but design group chairman Sheila Friend-Smith said her organisation had come up with the idea of "putting some colourful things in the windows, subject to the owners consent, of course."

"We want to give the impression that Ely is a thriving market town," she added.

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