Our high streets and shopping centres are visual testament to property sector difficulties. Whatever the reason may be – shopping shifting to digital, pandemic-reduced footfall, Brexit uncertainty – empty commercial gaps present themselves as the public face of a troubling time for landlords.

Will Jennings

Will Jennings

But boarded-up windows conceal more. They visually affect the feel of a shopping area, lowering the mood of a place, having an impact on nearby traders and local community, while Property Week readers will know the burden of having to pay empty property rates.

There are well-known strategies to reduce these rates – from storage to snails – although without benefiting the high street and often challenged by local authorities. Many owners also feel uneasy using such strategies, although understandably may see no alternative when commercial tenants are hardly ringing the phone off the hook.

New charity Hypha Studios recognises these issues with a strategy to help landlords, as well as benefit community and footfall. Coming from the cultural sector – which also has economic and spatial struggles – it places local artists into empty units for short-term projects or longer-term studio use.

Empty shop

Source: Shutterstock / Baloncici

In a Bristol shopping centre, units once housing a shoe shop, newsagents and greengrocers are now looked after by visual artists, a poet and a theatre group. Each organises public events, ensuring a buzz and footfall, while the property owner can see their rates reduced by 80% to 100%, supporting the charity with a donation to cover costs.

An Islington landlord said that working with Hypha meant they “were able to keep the lights on in the unit even during the height of the pandemic, and the brilliant public programme brought a new audience to the area”.

Hypha Studios is young but has already placed artists across the country, from Eastbourne to Penrith. Having received coverage on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, as well as support from local authorities, Arts Council England and cultural organisations, it works to holistically connect culture to place and help bring life to empty units.

Will Jennings is a director at Hypha Studios