This sounds like a great idea. The downfall of chainstores will hopefully become the catalysts for local initiatives.
Ministers are outline emergency measures today to prevent the recession creating ghost towns across Britain.
Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, and Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, will announce a £3m plan to make thousands of small grants of up to £1,000 to people who find creative reuse for vacant shops.
Planning rules will be relaxed to allow changes of use which go against local guidelines. For example, a disused clothes shop could become an art gallery or an empty Woolworths an NHS drop-in centre.
Temporary lease agreements will enable owners who want to retain a vacant property in the long term to make it available for community or creative use during the recession. Councils will be urged to take control of empty properties until the recession ends.
The measures come amid predictions that more than 70,000 retail outlets will close this year. Plymouth and Scarborough have 30 and 40 empty units in their respective town centres. In Northampton, almost one in six shops in the town centre stand empty, according to the Department for Communities. At the same time, artists' co-operatives and local councils have shown a desire to take over units which have become victims of the economic crisis.
"Empty shops can be eyesores or crime magnets," Blears said. "Our ideas for reviving town centres will give communities the knowhow to temporarily transform vacant premises into something innovative for the community - a social enterprise, a showroom for local artists or an information centre - and stop the high street being boarded up.
"Town centres are the heartbeat of every community and businesses are the foundation so it is vital they remain vibrant places for people to meet and shop throughout the downturn."
The initiative follows pressure from a government adviser on community cohesion, Ted Cantle, who believes the closure of chain stores is an opportunity to loosen the stranglehold of big retail chains on high streets. He called for vacant Woolworths stores to become farmers' markets.
It is also an attempt to accelerate a grassroots "slack space" movement, which has already seen 11 empty premises in a shopping centre in Margate taken over by artists and a pair of empty units in Torquay transformed into an NHS Stop Smoking Service shop and a young person's advice drop-in centre.