4 steps for building a community-led high street

November 25, 2021   By Vidhya Alakeson

We hear a lot about empty and abandoned high streets. But what if there was a community-led alternative? Power to Change’s Chief Executive Vidhya Alakeson on four ways to rethink and revitalise our high streets.

The current story we hear about our high streets is of the demise of retail.

It’s true that our shift online won’t be reversed. But look a little closer and you’ll see that our high streets haven’t just been shaped by consumer demands. They’ve been shaped by by the behaviour and priorities of investors.

Many of them have little long term interest in the place where they invest. So shops remain empty rather than rents falling to make it possible for them to be used.

It’s time to move towards a community-led high street where those who own and occupy the high street also have a long term interest in its vitality. Here are four ways we can start that journey, and an example of what success looks like.

A revived, community-led high street in Dumfries

Dumfries town centre is typical of many smaller town centres and secondary high streets. Once vibrant and bustling, it’s been in decline for several years – footfall reducing and many shops laying empty, creating a sense of neglect in the minds of local people.

But in Dumfries there is the Mid Steeple Quarter Community Benefit Society. It’s a community-led business that has developed a vision to transform the town centre driven by the needs of the local community.

Alongside deep engagement with local people, it has hundreds of local members that shape what it does and have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to support its work. Gradually, with the support of the local authority and Scottish Government in the form of funding and asset transfer, it is taking over empty properties and bringing them back into use.

Its vision for the town centre includes housing to bring new spending power and footfall into the town centre, workspace to give the town centre more daytime activity, arts and cultural activities, and community spaces.

It’s a vision that is more inclusive, has something for the diversity of the local population of all ages rather than the chain retail dominated town centres we have become used to.

It’s a vision that preserves the high street as the beating heart of the community, a place where people come together; a place that shapes local identity and preserves local heritage.

It’s a vision that recognizes the deeply social value of our town centres as well as their commercial and economic value.

This is a world away from clone town Britain.

Creating community-powered high streets

What can we learn from Dumfires that we can apply in the rest of the country?

If the future of the high street is going to be driven by the needs and preferences of local people rather than by the needs of remote investors, if the future of the high street must be social and not commercial, then what needs to change to bring about this new vision of high streets?

1. Community Improvement Districts  

The future high street needs to bring all the actors in the local place together – the local council or councils, businesses, the NHS, universities, community organisations.

But right now there are no spaces where theses interests come together to shape the economic future of our town centres. There are Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Neighbourhood Forums but these largely separate out interests rather than bringing them together.

We advocate for Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) that can bring all parties together with a strong voice for the community as the ultimate anchor in a place.

2. More community ownership through a High Streets Buy Out Fund

Research we commissioned from EG a couple of years ago showed that high street properties in community and public ownership were less likely to be empty than those in private, especially, remote private ownership.

For example, the Hastings Observer which had 13 different private owners over the last 30 years but has remained empty and become more and more dilapidated. (It’s now been bought by the local community.)

Gloucester shows an example of the difference public and community ownership can make. The University of Gloucestershire has taken over the former Debenhams and is repurposing it into a new learning and community hub. This preserves the heritage of the town centre and a much loved asset and retains as a public space, not a closed-off private one.

This is the kind of social purpose innovation we can get if we massively increase public and community ownership.

That’s why we’re calling for a high streets buy out fund that can snap up properties and transfer their ownership over time to communities.

Communities often lose out in the race to buy properties because they cant raise capital quickly enough, so a buy out fund would help secure properties for long term community use and ownership before they end up in the hands of extractive owners with little consideration for place.

3. Work with private owners to increase community and social purpose uses

We need to work with private owners to increase community and social purpose uses in town centres to better reflect what communities need and want.

There is a really strong pipeline of community and social entrepreneurs looking to take space on the high street and what they need is quality, affordable space.

There is some cause for optimism here. Private owners, particularly long-term owners like pension funds and those who own more than one property, are starting to think more about their social value creation in a place and also to be driven by the new economics of town centres.

Consumers increasingly want local and owners are coming to recognize that they will need to sacrifice some rent on some properties to attract in new types of occupiers who can respond to what consumers want and drive footfall overall.

I think local authorities can play a huge role here in working with those who are willing to change and acting as brokers, connecting social purpose entrepreneurs with enlightened property owners.

4. A mix of private, philanthropic and public investment

Blended finance will be critical to create this new vision for the high street.

Take the earlier example of Midsteeple Quarter. They know that money from the Scottish Land Fund and Dumfries Council alone won’t be enough to bring their vision to life.

Can they get private investment to support the housing with a more guaranteed return, while philanthropy focuses on the community spaces which are likely to generate less revenue and the public sector supports other areas?

The pockets of the public sector and philanthropy aren’t deep enough to create the scale of change we need without the big pools of private capital playing a role. But private capital alone can’t achieve the scale of change we need. It doesn’t have the risk appetite and will often demand too high a return.

So how can we put different pots of capital together in a place to create change and how can local councils use their money and other instruments like underwriting or guarantees to enable more private money to flow?

Conclusion

The old model of the high street is broken. The question is not whether change is coming. It’s already here. The question is change in whose interests.

Our high streets need to become places of connection and social purpose, with community as the new anchor.

Vidhya Alakeson is the founding chief executive of Power to Change.

This is an adapted version of a talk Vidhya gave at a New Local Innovation Exchange event.

Join our mailing list