Why landlords are happy to leave Camden High Street shops empty

Simon Pitkeathley's frank assessment came on The Free Thinking Podcast

Monday, 16th May — By Richard Osley

Simon Pitkeathley

Business expert Simon Pitkeathley

THE chief executive of a business interest group in Camden Town has laid out a sobering explanation as to why landlords are happy to leave their units in Camden High Street empty – warning that some are holding out for Costa Coffee-style operators.

Simon Pitkeathley, from Camden Town Unlimited, has spent years trying to convince property owners to allow “meanwhile” uses for vacant units.

These can be anything from temporary studio space for young creatives or bases for community groups – at peppercorn rents.

But he told The Free Thinking podcast on Thursday that it was a challenge to get landlords to lend them the keys – even though high streets were more appealing to everyone without boarded-up shopfronts.

Asked why more didn’t allow temporary uses while their properties were lingering on the market, Mr Pitkeathley said that landlords feared a good community project would be hard to move on when they needed the unit back.

“They want to remain in the background so the idea that you are going to have local councillors badgering them to allow a community thing to continue is not very appealing to them and they’d rather leave it empty,” he said.

But he added that others were “just hanging out for a Costa Coffee or some big operator that is going to sign a long lease.

“If you do something in the meantime and it gets in the way – or worse still [for land­lords] – decreases the long-term rental value then it’s just not worth your while and you might be better off leaving it empty.”

There are four branches of Costa within a short walking distance of Camden Town underground station.


SEE ALSO LIDL IS LATEST TO CHECK OUT OF CAMDEN HIGH STREET


Other units in the area have been boarded up for long periods of time.

“Particularly true of a place like Camden is you’ve got second-generation or third-generation owners,” said Mr Pitkeathley.

“So the original entrepreneur who set up a business in there and got the mortgage and eventually paid it off has then probably died… that building has been inherited by two or three siblings who have fallen out and it’s really hard to get a lease signed or to get anything done.”

The business guru, who is heavily involved in the exciting plans for the Camden Highline linking Camden Town with King’s Cross across old railway lines, said people had to accept that Covid had sped up “a journey we were already on”. This meant more remote working and online orders – changing the nature of the high street.

He suggested landlords had managed to keep a value in the market due to the “seemingly endless supply of first-time retailers willing to invest their life savings into setting up a shop because they’ve always wanted to do it”.

He predicted that many of these would go bust once an initial reduced rent period had passed and they were then forced to shell out on the normal cost of rent in Camden Town.

“They haven’t done their sums properly. It was never viable, because the rents frankly were too high and it goes bust. They’ve cashed in their life savings for something that just disappears,” Mr Pitkeathley said.

The exit of Lidl earlier this month has left another large unit empty in Camden High Street. Even some prime sites in the immediate proximity of the station are unfilled.

One idea Mr Pitkeathley has is “flipping the business rate model”, so it is paid by property owners not occupiers.

“Now any owner is going to find a way of passing on that charge to the occupier in the end because they do – but it brings the owner into the conversation,” he said.

“The owners have a very good way of staying quite well in the background very often. Unless you can engage them in the conversation in one way, they are the concrete ceiling that stops change.”

He had been talking on the podcast with Adam Scott, an architect who founded masterplanning agency FreeSpace.

Mr Scott’s regular podcast can be found at most providers, including Apple, at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-freethinking-podcast/id1549117590

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