FOR a man whose job is to rent out shop space in our local town centres – where retail closures seem to be happening on a monthly basis – Nick Ellis is a very cheerful person.

Perhaps this is because he’s got nearly three decades’ experience – his business, Ellis Partners, lets out shops, homes and other commercial property.

Or perhaps it’s because he’s got a firm and realistic handle on where our high streets are actually heading. Clue: it may not be where you think.

“It’s really a question of the town centre needing to reinvent itself,” he says. “In the future they are going to be places where people don’t always go to shop but to do things and have things done to them.”

By this he means eating, visiting the hairdresser or the tattooist "or maybe even the tattoo-remover!"

In Bournemouth it has already meant a sports shop in Albert Road becoming a boxing gym. “For them, being in the town centre is much better than being out on an industrial estate,” he explains. More companies will be thinking like this, he says.

The need for this step-change is apparent the minute you step onto Old Christchurch Road. There are at least 12 empty shops in less than a quarter of a mile. On the opposite side of town, Marks & Spencer’s still lies empty in what was considered to be a prime retail location. And uncertainty still hovers over the House of Fraser store.

The reason for the decline in traditional retail, says Mr Ellis, is simple. “Think about people’s shopping habits. So many things come from online. You can get everything from a screen if you want to; people are getting their grocery shopping delivered so it’s affecting all areas. Even the out of town retail parks are not seeing the footfall they used to because of online, the change of pace has accelerated.”

But here’s why he’s cheerful.

Bournemouth, Mr Ellis says, is doing far better than many of its rivals. “Some of the town’s secondary shopping centres such as Westbourne, Southbourne Grove, Wimborne Road in Winton, Ashley Cross in Parkstone – they are pretty much thriving conventional high streets with good quality butchers, greengrocers and the type of shops, all the local people go to for their everyday needs.”

Even in the town centre, all is not what it seems.

Mr Ellis explains that many of the empty shops we can see are, in fact, being negotiated for rental by new enterprises. “Negotiating these things takes much longer than renting out a flat,” he says, adding that a 12-month void is not uncommon for many commercial properties as planning permission, changes of use and other details need to be thrashed out before a fit-out could even begin.

Ellis Partners is involved in "many" of these negotiations and, he says, "there are always deals to be done", meaning that landlords are savvy enough to know that times are changing too. There is no room for old-fashioned ideas or "greed".

“Property owners need to be up to date with what the markets are doing,” he says. “There are one or two who cling to the old ways and say they are only going to let to a top quality tenant on a top rate on a very long lease but that’s not going to happen so I think both landlords and tenants need to understand how the retail and business market is changing generally. In any property deal two people have to make a living – the landlord and the tenant.”

Rents, he says, have dropped, although property sites show that letting even a small prime space on Old Christchurch Road could still cost you more than £4,000 a month.

As well as negotiating lets, his company also uses its expertise to advise potential clients who come to them with proposals for town-centre businesses. “It’s brave to start a business and it’s quite distressing to see someone do it and go wrong,” he says “We try to use our expert local knowledge to guide them into the best thing.”

The other part of this complicated jigsaw is, of course, the local council and the coming merger with Poole and Christchurch. Mr Ellis sees yet more opportunity for the whole conurbation. “We’ll be a bit smaller than Bristol and a lot bigger than Southampton,” he says. “And when you look at what we’ve got here – we are a city by the sea with the beautiful beaches, the New Forest and the Jurassic coast on our doorsteps. It’s a fantastic area to live and work and open a business.”

Whilst praising initiatives such as the highly successful Christmas Tree Wonderland Trail he hopes the merged authority will have a more flexible approach to planning changes, a more commercial outlook and that "the new chief officers will push the agenda quickly".

He also hopes they will address the "mess" in Bournemouth town centre as well as the issue of homelessness which, he says, can trouble potential tenants.

He also wants to see less criticism of home-building in the town centre and the number of students in the town. “Students have been a great boon and have a huge amount of spending power,” he says. “The university turns out sought-after graduates which results in start-up businesses in the area.”

These people in turn seek services such as gyms, like the one Ellis Partners has going in on the first floor of Richmond Gardens, above Lidl and Wilko. “It shows how it can all work, even though it’s very different,” he says.

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