16% of high street shops stand empty – is Community Ownership the answer?

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A record 16% 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.

The future of the high street is a persistent challenge that has unfolded in the UK over several decades.

High streets face the complex and knotty challenges of changing retail trends; dysfunctional property ownership; the erosion of local government; changing patterns of consumption; digital transformation; and climate risks.

A new report has added to growing evidence that shows a community-led high street is a central element of the solution to these challenges.

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. Importantly, these spaces provide affordable, appropriate services and products for the community – they more nimbly meet shifting local demand than traditional high street occupants.

Community businesses – businesses that are owned and ran by and for their local communities – are already contributing to high street regeneration, increasing footfall by offering spaces and services that differ from the traditional retail model, and have the potential to go even further.

A new report has found that community businesses support new and emerging forms of economic activity; slow down and prevent gentrification; create clusters of activity supporting other businesses; create conditions that support high street revitalisation and support the development of policy and funding to better support high streets.

The report has shone light on the need and opportunity for supporting communities to save ailing high streets and support the levelling up agenda.

‘Community businesses and high streets: ‘taking back’ and leading forward’ paves a path forward for Government to regenerate our high streets, recommending:

  • Prioritise use value over land value in regeneration schemes
  • Incentivise partnership rather than competition – long term finance, awarded at least in part on the depth of collaboration involved, needs to become the norm
  • Support revenue spending as well as capital programmes – investing in places begins with investing in people
  • Start to address long-term challenges such as local government finance and property law – these cannot be repaired on an ad-hoc and piecemeal basis.

The report also makes further recommendations for local authorities, property owners and agents, community businesses and funders to support high streets.

Dr Julian Dobson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, author of the report, said: “Many aspects of the systems that influence the vitality of high streets and town centres are dysfunctional and not amenable to short-term solutions. They will require political choices with wide-ranging impacts. This report instead demonstrates that many opportunities and challenges that are available within the system that exists now, and lays bare the importance of community businesses in making the most of them.”

Nick Plumb, Policy Manager at Power to Change said: “High streets were once the beating hearts of our local communities, but the growth of out-of-town retail; the rise of megastores; a seismic shift towards online shopping; and more recently a cost-of-living crisis has left them vulnerable. This report makes clear what we know: that greater community ownership and involvement in the high street will push back against these worrying trends. A High Street Buyout Fund will help local people overcome the barriers they face, such as access to money at speed, in taking ownership of their high streets. We need this radical action now to ensure our much-loved community spaces survive and thrive.”

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Power to Change is calling for a new £350 million High Street Buyout Fund that will help local communities secure property on the high street and support a transition away from the failing retail-dominated high street to new, diversified high street that puts community in the driving seat.

The fund will be designed to act quickly to purchase empty, important buildings, holding them until communities have the funds and structure to run the building for the long-term.

It is specifically calling on government to invest £100 million of Levelling Up Fund money to help capitalise the fund.

Jo Bambrough, Managing Director of Good Things Collective said: “The high street is often the heart of a town, what happens to the buildings there is really important. This fund could be the difference between developers coming into a town and deciding what people need, or levelling the playing field and giving communities an opportunity to do something about empty buildings. It would protect communities interests long term, and can hugely impact people’s quality of life at a local level.”

A High Street Buyout Fund will be a transformational measure to help communities purchase assets on the high street, with the potential to transform over 200 neglected high street properties across the country by leveraging £250m of private and commercial and social investment against a £100m government grant.

The full report can be read here.

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