The Business Exchange Bath & Somerset Issue 10: Winter 2018/19 - Page 36

COMMERCIAL PROPERTY KEEPING BUSINESS IN BATH Everyone knows offices and retails spaces have always been at a premium in Bath – but with rising rents and rates, many firms are choosing to relocate to Bristol and beyond. In the meantime, empty units are blighting the historic city centre. Ben Jones, commercial property partner and head of Thrings’ Bath office, says the shortage of modern office space has also seen a hike in rents, which reached £31 per square foot this year. Ben said:“The challenge the city clearly faces is retaining those businesses that are expanding on the back of their success, and Ben Jones, Thrings in attracting new businesses, competing hard with the offering down the road in Bristol. “The situation is being further enhanced by the conversion of listed office buildings into residential property across Bath, and indeed the South West. “Then there is the knock-on effect. One of Bath’s many selling points is its rich retail and gastronomic offering and this is supported by a strong business community in the city. If that commercial hub shrinks, it will undoubtedly impact on the city’s independent shops, boutiques and vibrant restaurant scene. We are reminded, almost on a daily basis, of the immense challenges facing retailers and restaurateurs; Bath has historically proved very resilient, but these challenges will only be enhanced if businesses are forced to relocate from the city or opportunities to attract strong new businesses into the city are missed because of the lack of space.” Poppy Powell, Cake Café Poppy Powell, who owns four cafés in Bath in George Street, Quiet Street and Pulteney Bridge, believes the problem lies with private landlords charging high rents. She said: “Although the council own a lot of property, in my 36 THE BUSINESS EXCHANGE 2018 experience they’re quite fair in the rents they ask, whereas from what I can gather from other shop owners, it’s quite often the private landlords who just dictate how much they want. So I don’t think there’s a great deal the council can do about that. “But if there was something they could do about the business rates – I don’t know what rules are laid down by the Government – but if there was more relief perhaps, that would help. It’s the rates that are the major problem because they can often be half again of what the rent is.” Invest in Bath is Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) Council’s initiative, in partnership with Invest Bristol and Bath, designed to support and encourage business growth in the area. Simon Martin, Programme Director, Growth and Enterprise at the council, agrees that while Bath is an attractive location for businesses, the acute shortage of space is a major problem. He said: “In the past five years, the city has lost over 30,000 sq m of business space to permitted Simon Martin, development rights, which allow B&NES Council changes of use from office to residential to be carried out without the need for planning permission and student accommodation. “As a result, much former office space has been converted, whilst a lack of development of modern office accommodation means that available stock remains in high demand, and any good quality supply is quickly absorbed. Expanding companies wishing to stay in the city have become increasingly restricted in their options, often being forced to relocate to neighbouring centres such as Bristol, where there is more choice for modern occupiers. “Bath has also experienced an increased churn in retail properties in the city, leading to a small increase in the number of vacant properties. Closures have commonly been due to businesses either relocating to alternative areas within the city, or to national chains changing their business models. “Regrettably we have also seen the closure of some smaller local independent businesses, due to a range of differing factors. Whilst Bath’s rental and businesses rates are comparatively high, this is due to the popularity of the area and its relatively high footfall. It is worth noting that even with the small increases in empty retail frontages, Bath still has comparatively low vacancy rates and the majority of the empty units are either under offer or are currently undergoing renovations.” Simon’s team are working with the Bath Independent Traders group to find ways to reduce the number of empty shops, and the new Local Plan, the draft of which will be released next year, aims to set out a planning policy that it is more supportive of the independent retail community. Simon added: “The council has also recognised the need to protect the remaining office accommodation in the city and is developing local planning policy that will enable greater control over the conversion of office space to residential premises in future through an Article 4 Directive. “We are also providing new grade A office stock in the city through our flagship development in the Bath Enterprise Zone, at Bath Quays. Bath Quays North and South will deliver over 30,000 sq m of office accommodation and co-working space in the heart of the city, which will provide much needed accommodation for our growing local business community and create a viable investment potential for businesses looking to locate to the area. Our Enterprise Zone status also offers business rates relief to relocating companies.” Meanwhile, Ben Jones believes tech companies could hold the key to a brighter future as they have been major players in office take-up over the past year – but again, to compete with tech-hub neighbours such as Bristol, Bath needs to provide suitable premises. “There have been success stories, of course, with the redevelopment of 20 Manvers Street and the refurbishment of Cambridge House on Henry Street – which has more than 55 new offices over four floors - giving the Bath’s office market a welcome shot in the arm,” he said. Give us your thoughts and join the conversation on Twitter. Twitter: @TBEBATH #BathCommProp