Nick Plumb, Power to Change – Community ownership is key to levelling up Britain’s high streets

With the cost-of-living crisis affecting everything from food prices to energy bills, our places are also under threat – and not least our beloved British high streets.

Britain’s high streets were once the beating hearts of our communities – people need places and spaces to come together, form meaningful relationships, and together improve the lot of their place. Community spirit got us through the darkest times in the pandemic, and it is this spirit that we must now lean into again. It’s true that the growth of out-of-town retail; the rise of megastores; a seismic shift towards online shopping; and now the cost-of-living crisis has left our high streets vulnerable but, as financial pressures continue to build across the country pushing more and more people into hardship, these places are more important than ever.

Recent YouGov research for Power to Change shows that nearly three quarters of us (74 per cent) worry that the decline of their local high street will have a negative impact on the local economy and result in fewer job opportunities for young people. Local Data company data from earlier this year found that 16 per cent of shops on Britain’s high streets stand empty, and one in every twenty vacant units have been shuttered up for more than three years. This is a crisis for the future of British high streets.

A new report by Julian Dobson, for Power to Change, ‘Community businesses and high streets: ‘taking back’ and leading forward’, clearly shows that the challenges the high street faces have unfolded in the UK over several decades and short-term solutions are not the answer. High streets face the complex and knotty issues of changing retail trends; dysfunctional property ownership; changing patterns of consumption; digital transformation; and climate risks; and the hollowing out of local government capacity.

The solution to many of these challenges, we believe, is community-led. Community-owned spaces contribute £220m to the UK economy, and 56p of every £1 they spend stays in the local economy, compared with just 40p for large private sector firms. Where there is community ownership on a high street, vacancy rates are reduced. These spaces provide affordable services and products for the community – they more nimbly meet shifting local demand than traditional high street occupants.

Community businesses are owned and run by and for their local communities. Many are cooperatives. And they are already contributing to high street regeneration, increasing footfall by offering spaces and services that differ from the traditional retail model, with the potential to go further.

Community businesses support new forms of economic activity; slow down gentrification; create clusters of activity supporting other businesses. In short, they help to create conditions that support wider high street revitalisation. The findings of Julian’s research make clear what we know: that greater community ownership and involvement in the high street will push back against these worrying trends. It isn’t the only solution, but it must be an important tool in the policy and placemaker’s toolbox.

To help communities take back control of their high streets, a new £350million High Street Buyout Fund would help local communities secure property on the high street and support a transition away from the failing retail-dominated high street to a new, diversified high street that puts community in the driving seat. The fund will be designed to act quickly to purchase empty, important buildings, especially those which might have sat vacant for several years. It will then hold them until communities have the funds and sound business plan to run the building for the long-term. We are specifically calling on government to invest £100million of Levelling Up Fund money to help capitalise the fund. This would be a clear way for the new Prime Minister to show they are serious about the politically salient issue of high street regeneration – and that they trust communities to be best placed to do this.

Such a fund will inevitably work with local authorities and communities to ensure it is receiving accurate and up-to-date intelligence about properties which are coming to market, for which there is local appetite to be involved in their running and management.

But there are, of course, things that councils can do right now. First, help communities and community organisations gain access to high street space, through meanwhile use and asset transfer – as has played a role in the transformation of Radcliffe’s Market Hall and the Midtseeple Quarter in Dumfries.

Second, trial Community Improvement Districts. Power to Change is working with seven places across England to test this model. It aims to put communities at the heart of town centre governance to ensure residents and organisations have a say over the future of their high street. Brent Council, a CCIN member, is part of the Kilburn High Road CID pilot alongside neighbouring Camden council.

Third, provide finance to support community ownership on the high street, through capacity building grants, bridging loans and co-investment in properties. Plymouth City Council both provided a bridging loan to Nudge Community Builders in the early stages of their development of Union Street and invested in their community share offer.

We need this action, now, to ensure our much-loved community spaces survive and thrive. And we need a growing coalition of voices to help us push for a High Street Buyout Fund. Join us.