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Open Doors - the proven way to transform the high street

On 15 July the government launched its new high street strategy “Build Back Better High Streets” with the importance of ensuring dynamic, well-used high street facilities highlighted for supporting the social health and wellbeing of communities. High on the agenda is making use of empty premises, with the Meanwhile Foundation’s Open Doors programme proposed as a model for the way forward.

“If a vacant shop isn’t working for retail, arcane rules shouldn’t stop it becoming a nursery” (Boris Johnson, PM)

Back in 2009, working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Locality, founding directors of Meanwhile Space CIC Emily Berwyn and Eddie Bridgeman began developing a model for taking over empty properties on high streets and providing local groups and enterprises with a transformed space to test, develop and roll out initiatives for the benefit of the wider community. They developed this vision and, on the back of another 60 successful meanwhile use projects, in 2018 secured the funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to deliver Open Doors. This was delivered in partnership with the Meanwhile Foundation, the sister charity to Meanwhile Space, that supports greater participation in meanwhile use and quality of outcomes to communities to occupy vacant spaces.

Emily Berwyn, Director of Meanwhile Space and trustee of the Meanwhile Foundation says "We are delighted that after a decade of managing meanwhile projects and recognising the positive benefits for local people, communities and buildings, this approach is being recognised by government as a key part in their new plan for High Streets. We established Meanwhile Space to find ways of accessing empty underused buildings so that they can be productive assets and not local eyesores. We will continue to work with all our partners to make meanwhile use embedded in the normal development processes so that all towns and cities can benefit from vibrant, active facilities at the heart of their communities.”

Open Doors was a one-year pilot scheme matching landlords who were struggling to rent empty properties on high streets with community groups looking for space. The groups going into the spaces would not have to pay any rent or fees and would be largely self-managing. Each needed to demonstrate viability, ambition, quality of delivery, localness and to justify how and why the wider community would be served.

The five pilot sites around the UK identified were in Bradford, Fenton (Stoke on Trent), Kettering, Rochford and Slough. Empty sites were taken over and newly decorated with Open Doors branding, window and wall vinyls, contemporary furnishing, improved facilities, plenty of greenery – all the elements that help create a welcoming space.

The enterprises and projects that took on the spaces were wide ranging and hugely beneficial to a broad spectrum of local people. Groups included, for example, Movie Mavericks encouraging film appreciation in young people, Westbury Workshop supporting independent living for adults with learning difficulties and autism, Sporting Communities encouraging the uptake of sport, Kettering Community Unit drop-in for the homeless, Picture the Difference support group for chronic pain sufferers and Bradford Transformed, who discuss local art, culture and politics.

The programme was evaluated by the independent agency IFF Research, who found that it was of benefit to landlords and to the charities, CICs and other groups who desperately needed spaces for their projects, and that it represented good value for money.

In its Build Back Better High Streets strategy the government recognises the benefits of the Open Doors model for high streets and for local communities. Meanwhile Space and the Meanwhile Foundation are proud to be defining the agenda for high street reform.

More information about the Open Doors programme can be found in the MHCLG and Meanwhile Space reports at For additional press images and interview requests, please contact Lydia Gardner


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