SWANSEA HIGH STREET PROPERTY ROUNDTABLE
MONDAY 11TH NOVEMBER 2019
COASTAL HOUSING, URBAN VILLAGE, SWANSEA
On Monday 11th November 2019 4theRegion convened a meeting of key property sector professionals with interests in high street and city centre property. Our goal was to explore some of the challenges and opportunities relating to vacant space in the city, and share updates on what’s happening to property throughout the city.
Exciting Times for Swansea City Centre
Phil Holmes, head of Regeneration at Swansea Council, described the exciting time that Swansea is currently experiencing, with the biggest investments in the city centre since the second world war, happening now. The regeneration of the Kingsway, the new arena and public park, the new bridge over Oystermouth Road, and the St Davids scheme, are all being led by Swansea Council but are levering in private sector investment, with upgrades to old buildings and new projects being developed throughout the city in response.
Swansea Council has been working with Natural Resources Wales on a new green infrastructure strategy for the city, and it’s encouraging to hear that this is now a key priority for the Council, and for major partners including Coastal Housing and Pobl Group. Swansea Council also have a range of property improvement grants available to landlords, and this has been effective in a number of examples. Regeneration Swansea is also providing support in encouraging employers into the city centre.
A number of commercial letting agents also attended the meeting, from RJ Chartered Surveys, BP2 Properties, and Threshold, and talked about the importance of landlords being prepared to invest in older properties to create spaces that the market wants. With a bit of investment, and the creation of high quality smaller spaces (1000 – 2000 sq ft), experts felt that space in the city centre is highly lettable and very much in demand. Conversely, it was felt that the dilapidated state of some of what is available, and the earning potential of Swansea property, means some landlords are unwilling to invest and happy to sit on empty properties rather than get them up to standard.
The Needs of Small and Micro Businesses
An interesting discussion centred around the needs of small and micro businesses in the city, for whom the challenge is finding access to space on easy terms, at low cost, in attractive and vibrant locations where they feel part of a supportive cluster. That doesn’t necessarily mean refurbished spaces – it was pointed out that new businesses need old buildings, and can make effective use of them without much investment. Stacey Adamiec of 10C Consultancy noted that some of the properties considered “unlettable” by agents and landlords, might not actually be unlettable, but that it could be a matter of connecting small creative businesses with the right amenable landlords, for mutual benefit. Stacey perceives that there’s a gap in understanding about the needs and opportunities of letting space to creative industry businesses, and that it can be made financially attractive for landlords with the right mix of tenants.
The meeting agreed that helping small businesses to be successful involves not just access to the right spaces in the city, but also access to an ecosystem of support – from other businesses nearby, and from “connectors”. That’s why clustering can work, and why more needs to be done to encourage networking and relationships among businesses in the city centre. Sharing skills and expertise is a low cost way for businesses to upskill and develop. Initiatives like the Pop-up Business School are popular, but what happens to these budding entrepreneurs at the end of the course? How can we capture these opportunities to keep creative entrepreneurs in the city centre?
Another discussion centred on the decision by larger employers about whether to locate in the city centre, or in one of the peripheral business parks. Swansea Council is working on attracting major employers into the city to increase footfall (“Watch this space!”) and everyone agreed that this is the right strategy – as long as it doesn’t negatively impact the economy of secondary districts. Many employers are keen to be within the city centre, if they can find the right space. Members of the meeting expressed their dismay at the decision by Pobl Housing Group to move out of the city centre to Swansea Enterprise Park, taking with them 200 jobs and vacating a prime building on the newly redeveloped Kingsway. And contributors noted the many benefits to staff of being located in the city – including the ability to meet colleagues and friends in town, to run errands and use local businesses. “We need to promote the benefits of working in the centre of Swansea vs the business parks around the city.”
Why Some Spaces Won’t Let?
In response to claims that there is plenty of demand for space from small and large businesses in the city, some contributors disagreed. Examples were provided of ostensibly highly lettable spaces that were proving hard to let in the city centre, for example on Princess Way, where it was pointed out that there are already a range of recently refurbished, modern and attractive smaller spaces available, at £8 or £9 per square foot.
We wondered whether this is proof positive that it’s the “vibe” of a business district that determines its desirability. Companies want to be in places like TechHub because its a community, a cluster of likeminded people with an ecosystem of support. Businesses want to be in Bristol because it’s a creative, vibrant city that people want to work in. At 4theRegion our goal is to make Swansea City Centre (starting with the High Street) somewhere that more people want to be, and feel they belong, specifically by developing an ecosystem of creativity, culture, inclusion, opportunity and the right mindset about the city centre. Successfully achieving a vibrant and creative city centre will attract large and small businesses back in; landlords need to be able to provide the right spaces, and increasing demand will make further investment financially attractive.
Nurturing the Creative Economy
Colleagues from Coastal Housing noted that while their primary role is providing housing, they have worked hard to nurture Swansea’s creative quarter on the High Street, and have long supported organisations like Volcano and Elysium with favourable lease agreements. The challenge is for organisations to use these agreements as a stepping stone and not rely on them indefinitely. They have paved the way and created a strong foundation for the High Street with the success of the Urban Village (phase 1), and the hope is that we can collectively build on this progress. Coastal are continuing to redevelop a number of city centre sites, and colleagues reflected on the importance of early engagement with the community to help shape their proposals for specific buildings.
- Share more knowledge about different types of tenancies, like Meanwhile Leases and Tenancies at Will, which can offer mutually beneficial solutions to both landlords and occupiers. Get legal and tax advice on the pros and cons of different scenarios to understand why landlords may not consider such short term / flexible / low rent tenancies.
- Showcase examples where these flexible tenancies have worked well.
- Engage more disengaged landlords who are sitting on vacant properties. Why? How can we help?
- Develop a shared sense of purpose among landlords and agents about getting spaces filled, in creative ways if need be, to help create vibrancy and life in the city centre.
- Can 4theRegion use vacant shop windows as space to promote the creative sector and create a sense of identity in the City Centre?
- Establish a business club or more opportunities for networking among businesses, create a cluster, bring people together, develop the eco-system.
- Involve private sector landlords in the conversation about green infrastructure in the city centre.
- Explore ideas for bridging the gap between potential occupiers and commercial letting agents / landlords.
- Make Swansea somewhere people want to be, and commercial success for property owners will follow.
Would you like to be involved in this conversation?
4theRegion would like to thank everyone who attended this initial meeting for their insights and contributions, which were incredibly useful in helping us understand the challenges and opportunities in the city centre. We invite others to get in touch if you would like to be included in future meetings on this topic, and we would also like to encourage readers to register for our upcoming City Centre Conference on 31st March 2020.