How community power could save the high street

October 1, 2020   By Ailbhe McNabola, Head of Research and Policy, Power to Change

The decline of the high street was only sped up by Covid-19 – but could commununity ownership help reverse this trend? With inspiring examples from across the UK, Ailbhe McNabola argues that it could.

Doom and gloom for the high street?

This summer Power to Change worked with a team from the London School of Economics, studying successful examples of community-led development of town centres and community businesses located on high streets. The subject could scarcely have been more timely, given the context: before Covid-19, the traditional retail-dominated model of the high street was already in decline, affected by ‘big box’ out-of-city shopping centres and online shopping habits.

Many high streets were already shifting to an ‘experience economy’ with new coffee shops, restaurants, hair salons and nail bars filling the gaps left by the decline of big retail names. Now the British Independent Retailers Association reports that 20% of retailers do not intend to reopen after the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. High street vacancies look set to increase dramatically.

Of course, declining high streets have more than economic consequences, with knock on effects for the wider community, in many cases contributing to a spiral of decline for many local areas.

But not all shops or businesses are the same. Data analysis we commissioned in 2019 showed that community and public ownership of high street properties leads to fewer empty units. In 22 of the busiest high streets in the UK, shops owned by overseas investors are more than twice as likely to be vacant as shops owned by the public sector. Empty shops are more likely to be owned by real estate companies (who own one in four empty shops) and overseas investors (who own one in five). Only one in ten empty shops is owned by a public or social sector organisation.

High streets as civic spaces

Prior to the growth of consumerism (from the late 19th century onwards), high streets were as much civic as commercial places, with guildhalls and public meeting spaces sitting alongside a mix of stores and markets, and a higher proportion of housing than is seen today. Retail should be part of the mix in any place where people come together but there is a strong need – now widely recognised – to shift away from a retail-only model of the high street and encourage a greater role for communities.

This summer, retail expert Bill Grimsey set out a vision for town centres and high streets that ‘build back better’ by transferring power to local communities, arguing that local communities could develop new models for their high streets and town centres, based on quality of life and local needs rather than mass consumerism. Our research with LSE explains how a range of places have taken this approach and makes recommendations for other areas keen to try it out. They are:

  • The Old Library in Bodmin, Cornwall – where a significant local building has been used by a community business as a cultural facility, drawing visitors to the high street
  • Midsteeple Quarter, Dumfries – a community-led initiative which is developing a group of high street buildings into a live/work quarter
  • Made in Ashford, Kent – an independent shop which provides a platform for local business to sell on the high street and for community-based craft activities
  • Hebden Bridge Town Centre, West Yorkshire – a town with a thriving high street, with multiple community businesses supported by the local authority through their ‘community anchors’ policy
  • Radcliffe Market Hall in Bury, Suffolk – a rejuvenated market hall, combining a traditional market with an evening dine-in street food and community venue
  • Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, Oxford – where members of the local community are trying to bring an independent cinema into community ownership.

The redevelopment of Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries demonstrates how local authorities can support communities to take ownership of a group of disused buildings on a high street, refurbish them and steward them for the community, offering affordable enterprise space at street level and good quality flats for rent on the floors above.

Case Study: Midsteeple Quarter – community-led high street redevelopment

Supported by the council, Midsteeple Quarter is the first community-owned development of a high street in the UK. Led by the Midsteeple Quarter Community Benefit Society, this multimillion- pound regeneration project for the centre of Dumfries, Scotland, will diversify the high street by turning an underused and neglected group of high street buildings into a modern mix of homes, business and community spaces.

  • The eight buildings on the High Street and within the Midsteeple Quarter are owned by a mixture of public and private investors. The Oven (at 135-139 High Street) was the first building acquired by the Midsteeple Quarter project after Dumfries and Galloway Council agreed to a Community Asset Transfer of the property in November 2018. Temporary improvements and upgrades have been made on the ground floor, providing a flexible space for community use and a pop-up shop.
  • With £2.85 million of investment from a number of public sources and grant bodies and other commercial funding streams, plans are at an advanced stage to completely redevelop The Oven. This flagship property will consist of an enterprise centre for local businesses at street level and seven new affordable flats on the upper floors.
  • Despite the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, construction work is due to start early 2021, with completion mid-2022.
  • The Oven has been closed to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, but ‘The Oven Arts’ has been active on Instagram displaying contemporary art. The Midsteeple Quarter Manager is positive about the post Covid-19 situation, as funding is in place to start the construction work on The Oven early next year and the purchase of two additional buildings is near completion.

What the community can bring

The examples described in our research are indicative of the kind of role that community businesses and engaged community groups can play in reimagining the role of the high street, and bringing people back to these spaces, making them relevant once again. The core benefits of greater community involvement in high streets and town centres are attractiveness – community business bring a diversity of users and serve as destination places that attract people back to the high street – and resilience – community businesses and community groups are committed to a place and have the resilience to stay for the longer term. In this way they have much in common with local small, family-owned and independent businesses.

There is considerable existing evidence which shows that community asset ownership has significant benefits including overall productivity gains, local economic improvements and long-term community resilience.

Read Power to Change’s new report with LSE: Community ownership key to survival of Britain’s High Streets.

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