There’s a new model for town centre regeneration – and it starts with a visionary council
Bex Trevalyan, co-founder of Platform Places, explains how councils are turning town centre buildings into vibrant community-led hubs that benefit local people and strengthen the local economy.
It’s a quandary that will be familiar to councils across the country. Buildings sitting empty while community groups are crying out for spaces. Officers fighting an uphill battle to unlock property in a system that incentivises against shared use and community ownership at every turn.
But there is a different vision.
Imagine it’s 2025. A walk through your town centre brings fresh air and a buzz of activity. A sign by a local artist points visitors to a colourful row of independent shops. The smell of fresh bread draws you to a family-run cafe and community kitchen.
A heritage building that used to be empty is now filled with lively community markets that have sparked many new jobs, local businesses and new relationships. The new-build block that stood empty through the Covid-19 pandemic is now successfully operated by a community trust. The surplus they are generating is reinvested back into their activities and local businesses.
The launderette, library and childcare centre that offered warmth and safety for local people during the 2023 fuel crisis are all still open and thriving. Vacancy rates and social isolation have plummeted.
This might all sound like a distant utopia but at Platform Places we are working with places and councils who, with hard work, imagination and a willingness to think differently, are already turning it into reality.
Working together, they’re fixing the fragmented, overpriced property system, unlocking buildings for amazing community-led ideas
You might ask: how did you bring the private asset owners to the table? How did the local businesses afford the units? Where did the investment come from to refurbish and retrofit the buildings?
No doubt, these are thorny issues, but slowly, a new model for high streets is starting to emerge. Around the country, councils are building partnerships with local community leaders and asset owners. Working together, they’re fixing the fragmented, overpriced property system, unlocking buildings for amazing community-led ideas, and generating a range of co-benefits.
Here’s how two local authorities have made it happen:
Initiated by a 2011 campaign to save a treasured local asset, Historic Coventry Trust was created by Coventry residents to “preserve the city’s heritage for the next 1,000 years of its history”. Coventry City Council realised this entrepreneurial local trust would be best placed to look after many of the heritage buildings. So they asset-transferred 22 buildings and sites to the Trust.
With funding and expertise from Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) and others, the assets are being transformed into affordable housing, workspaces, guest houses, galleries and more.
Seven of these Heritage Development Trusts are now established around the country thanks to AHF and to the leadership of seven different councils.
Sheffield City Council made the central premise of its Future High Street Fund bid about transforming the high street into a social hub.
They acquired one key shop building to house community entrepreneurs – to be a new ‘anchor’ and bring vibrancy to the high street. They’re now looking to acquire more high street buildings for this purpose.
In their £470m commercial development, Heart of City (where the council is developer), Sheffield decided to create a community entrepreneur hub right in the centre. They ran a competition to fill the spaces fairly, and weighted social impact much higher than financial return.
How to make this happen where you are
Through replicating some of the existing, successful pilots, we’ve developed a model which other areas can follow. We call it a Local Property Partnership.
- Bring the key people around the table and create a partnership; reach out to community leaders, existing local trusts, trusted asset owners and try to connect with any potential funders.
- Together, map out underused spaces and align on a vision for property use that addresses local needs.
- Lease or purchase one building to start with, to be managed by a skilled community activator. This building will act as a proof-of-concept to attract funding and buy-in, alongside any existing public and community-managed buildings.
- Over time, you’ll be able to unlock 3 more buildings, then 5 more, and beyond, transforming your town centre and creating long-term property culture change.
At its heart, this is all about collaboration, and getting the right people to the table. It’s selling the value of this approach to those who own the assets, and to those who are willing to fund change. With the right support in place, partners can then work together to transform town centres for long-term, local benefit.
About Platform Places
Platform Places is a social enterprise unlocking town centre buildings for amazing ideas that help us live affordably, sustainably and together. We convene and support councils, communities and asset owners to bring buildings into long-term community use or ownership. Our partners include High Street Task Force, Power to Change, British Property Federation, New Local, Radix and Shoosmiths.
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