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Community ownership: the solution to our high streets puzzle

High streets can be huge sources of civic pride. But if we are to breathe new life into these spaces, we must first tackle the issues around ownership, says Power to Change's Nick Plumb.

Union st plymouth

Union Street in Plymouth has been the focus of community ownership project Nudge Community Builders since 2017.

Ownership matters.

For centuries, people have instinctively understood this. Large scale enclosure of land at the end of the 18th century saw much of our common land divided up and given to a handful of individuals. Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?, estimates that today half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population.

With ownership comes power, stability and the ability to shape our own destiny. For these reasons, throughout history communities have sought to take ownership of land and buildings totackle some of our biggest social, environmental and economic challenges. Right now, one of our most pressing social challenges is the decline of the high street.

The consumption and retail-driven high street model has suffered numerous setbacks since the Second World War, from the opening of the UK’s first supermarkets in the 60s and the growth of out-of-town shopping centres in the 90s to the increasing ease and ubiquity of online shopping. Footfall on UK high streets has been consistently falling for decades, and of course these trends have only been accelerated by the pandemic.

In the past year, we’ve seen high street giants like Debenhams and Arcadia groupfall like dominoes. Analysis from the Altus Group predicts that 15 million square feet of high street space in England and Wales will come onto on the market, in part driven by the pandemic.

The high street seems to be in terminal decline, but there is still a faint heartbeat. If we are to breathe new life into these spaces, we must first tackle the issues around ownership on the high street.

A civic model that inspires pride in place

Despite these challenges, high streets can be huge sources of civic pride. Deborah Mattinson’s recent book Beyond the Red Wall spoke about the importance people place on the presence of a Mark and Spencer on their high street in raising perceptions of their local area. These are the ‘red wall’ towns that swung to the Conservatives for the first time in 2019 and will be one of the key battlegrounds of the next general election.

So what is the alternative to big retail on our high streets?

There is huge potential for local businesses to contribute to a reimagined high street: a community-led model that can inspire similar pride in a place to the well-known British brands of yesteryear.

Community businesses – businesses run by local people and trading for the benefit of local people – are playing an increasing role in town centres across the country. They are locally rooted and trusted, deliver services that local people want, provide diverse uses for high street buildings, and act as a destination, which increases footfall on the high street that benefits other businesses.

There is a growing number of inspiring examples of communities and community businesses taking control of their high streets, such as the Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries and Nudge Community Builders in Plymouth.

Union Street in Plymouth was, in the 70s, a bustling, busy destination for a night out. In the following decades, it saw decline and rising property vacancy.

Hannah Sloggett and Wendy Hart, two local residents, established Nudge Community Builders in 2017. Since then, they have been bringing buildings on Union Street back into use that the market wouldn’t otherwise go near.

It has been slow progress. The group has had to battle to gain an understanding of who owns the long-vacant properties for which they could see a better future. They have had to raise money from a variety of different sources, including support from Power to Change charitable trust for the purchase of buildings.

The transformative effect Nudge is having is plain to see. Before the pandemic, Nudge had helped to establish a thriving pop up café and a shopping arcade with space for local businesses and individuals who want to grow ideas that benefit the local community and the street. Today, there is a real buzz about Plymouth’s Union Street.

In Sheffield, the council’s successful application to the Future High Streets Fund represents an opportunity to replicate some of what we’ve seen in Plymouth. Some plans have been drawn up already, as is often required with these centrally managed government funding schemes. Now, the council should be listening to communities to hear their ideas for the future of Fargate and thinking how community ownership and management can be built into these plans.

Where does government come in?

In their 2019 Manifesto, the Conservative Party – recognising the power of community ownership – made a commitment to establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund. We’ve yet to see this commitment translate into action. As more and more people are vaccinated and we begin to look seriously at the economic recovery, the budget on 3 March is the right moment for that to change.

As with most government policy, the small print matters. The manifesto committed to supporting community ownership of pubs, post offices and football clubs. These are all important, but the fund needs be broader than that. Experience tells us that where there is energy and commitment, communities can repurpose all manner of spaces – whether that’s underused vacant land, historic buildings that have fallen out of use, or community centres in need of a new lease of life. Importantly, the fund should also support communities to take ownership of high street buildings.

We also need to ensure the Community Ownership Fund supports groups with revenue costs associated with taking assets into ownership. This might be small grants to help communities think through whether their business idea has legs, or whether their aspirations for ownership are feasible from a technical perspective.

There will also need to be a degree of contingency support available as these complex projects inevitably, from time to time, run into difficulty. Without this accompanying support, the fund is unlikely to have the impact we, or government, would hope.

As we think about how we ‘build back better’ after this pandemic, our high streets will be one of the battlegrounds on which a better future is won or lost. To breathe new life and purpose into our high streets, we need to put communities in the lead to shape – and own – distinctive civic high streets fit for the future.

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Nick Plumb is Policy Manager at Power to Change, a charitable trust which runs several funding programmes centred around community business and community ownership.

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