THE number of empty shops in Oxford is on the rise - and campaigners want them put to better use.

A crisis meeting is being held by activists looking for ideas after the council admitted there are 30 more empty units in the city centre than six months ago.

The Oxford Times:

Open House, based in the former Posh Frocks clothing store in Little Clarendon Street, will host the meeting on Wednesday, March 20 at 6.30pm.

A Facebook post advertising the meeting, which will be hosted by Lucille de Verdiere and Vez Hoper, said it would welcome 'all ideas' as the city council revealed there are a total of 68 vacant units in the city centre - a vacancy rate of 13.2 per cent, up from eight per cent in September.

READ AGAIN: Shops coming and going - the changing face of Oxford shopping

It said: "Empty shops are everywhere in Oxford. Peppered through the centre of our city; from Cornmarket Street to Little Clarendon Street and inside both The Covered market and even the Westgate.

"These voids in our city lie empty while people sleep rough, projects lack space and local businesses are strangled by extortionate rents.

The Oxford Times:

"We, a group of concerned citizens are calling an open meeting at Open House, a community project currently using an empty shop on Little Clarendon Street on Wednesday, March 20. We'll agree an agenda together on the day and welcome all people and all ideas."

READ AGAIN: Footfall is down in Cornmarket new retail survey has revealed

An Oxford Mail visit to the city centre yesterday revealed at least 14 empty units.

These included empty shops and businesses in Cornmarket Street, Queen Street, High Street, Turl Street, Ship Street, Golden Cross, Broad Street, and George Street.

The Oxford Times:

Lucy Warin helps to run Open House, which hosts workshops and community events and invites the homeless to take shelter there during the day.

READ AGAIN: Westgate shoppers boost funding for the city She said: "The response to this meeting so far has been amazing - nearly 800 people have said they are interested.

"We want to reach out to landlords to get a dialogue going on this issue.

"I think there is recognition of how ridiculous rents in Oxford have got but it's nothing more than a group of citizens saying 'let's talk about this'.

"What people say the shops should be used for will come out at the meeting."

READ AGAIN: Golden Cross looks 'empty and forgotten'

Responding to the Facebook post David Graham said: "Oxford City Council says it has severe unmet housing needs that requires it to take Green Belt land in neighbouring districts for housing.

The Oxford Times:

"If that's right, why not campaign to include a policy in the emerging Local Plan to the effect that empty shops and other employment sites which have been marketed for retail use and any other existing permitted uses, and not attracted a tenant occupying for the permitted use paying market rent for a given number of months, should be permitted to change use to housing?"

READ MORE: 'Forgotten' street in Oxford city centre needs a boost

In September board member for culture and city centre Mary Clarkson said a report by Centre for Cities showed that Oxford had more retailing than the average UK city centre – 48 per cent compared to 26 per cent.

She added that the percentage of vacant units was much lower than the UK average.

Mrs Clarkson said at the time there were 27 vacant units in the city centre outside the £440m Westgate Centre, which opened in October 2017.

Six months on the latest figures have shown an increase.

A spokesman for the city council said out of 516 retail units, including those at the Westgate Centre, there are 68 vacant units – 13.2 per cent. This includes 11 in Westgate Oxford.

Mrs Clarkson said: "The number of empty units has gone up a bit recently and that is causing concern.

"I welcome the public getting involved and there are a few different models we could look at, where artists, potter or jewellery makers could use premises on a short-term basis, a bit like Artweeks."

She added: "Council officers have been working tirelessly to re-let vacant units, and I think people are seeing that work pay dividends in Oxford Covered Market.

"We are keen to work with landlords who we have not been able to engage so far, particularly those that own national or international property portfolios and are not as close to Oxford."

READ MORE: Oxford's George Street - lots of changes afoot

A £36m Jesus College scheme to demolish Northgate House and turn it into new shops and student accommodation is now under way and will take two years to complete.

Major chains including Next and River Island switched to the Westgate Centre.

The former Moss Bros menswear store on the other side of Cornmarket remains vacant after the chain relocated to the new shopping centre.

The Oxford Times:

Units empty for a long time in Queen Street include the former Primark and Jones bootmaker stores.

And in George Street there have been a number of recent changes including the sudden closure of Pint Shop.

The former Solutions luggage store is boarded up and the former NatWest on the corner of George Street and Cornmarket is being marketed as space for a high-end restaurant.

READ AGAIN: Second NatWest bank could become top restaurant

Ship Street has looked shabby in places after Russell & Bromley shoe shop closed in 2017 and Heroes cafe shut the same year.

Jesus College got permission to move Ladbrokes into the former shoe shop in St Michael’s Mansions in December.

But the plan was opposed by Jesus College students and the Oxford Civic Society, which said the Central Conservation Area would have been harmed.

The Oxford Times:

In Broad Street Isola fashion store and Wendy's News have closed but the opening of Harry Potter-themed Shop of Secrets has given trade a boost.

READ MORE: Butterbeer sells out on day one at new Harry Potter shop

Liberal Democrat councillor Andrew Gant said private landlords should be prepared to open up empty units to pop-up shops and short-term lets instead of waiting for longer term solutions.

He added: "I think it's an excellent idea for the public to get involved in this debate - there are a lot of empty units in the city centre - frankly it's a bit of mess."

The Oxford Times:

The city council, landlords of the Covered Market, have divided up units at the market to attract new tenants, including a new fishmonger, and have also welcomed pop-up stores.

The Westgate Centre has said that almost all of its units are let.