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Community ownership key to reviving UK high streets, says research

Here at Property Investor Today, we have written regularly about regeneration projects and the need to revive Britain’s high streets, which suffered a particularly heavy toll from the pandemic.

And now new research has suggested that community ownership is key to levelling up the UK’s high streets. 

A new report from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by independent trust Power to Change, has set out the need and opportunity for supporting communities to save ailing high streets and support the much-talked about levelling up agenda, the flagship idea of outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  


The report - Community businesses and high streets: ‘taking back’ and leading forward - says that community businesses (businesses that are owned and ran by and for their local communities) are already contributing to high street regeneration.

This is helping to increase footfall by offering spaces and services that are set apart from the traditional retail model, with the potential to go even further.

What’s more, the report found that community businesses support new and emerging forms of economic activity, as well as slowing down and preventing gentrification – which is often cited as an unfortunate by-product of regeneration as existing communities are forced out by higher rents and new developments.

They also, the report adds, help 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.

Bringing empty high streets back to life

A record 16% of shops on Britain’s high streets currently stand empty, according to joint research by Power to Change and the Local Data Company. In addition to this, one in every twenty vacant units have been shuttered up for more than three years.

The report revealed that the future of the high street is a persistent challenge that has unfolded in the UK over several decades. It is a challenge that is not amenable to short-term solutions, the report said.

That’s because high streets face the ‘complex and knotty’ challenges of changing retail trends, as well as dysfunctional property ownership, the erosion of local government, changing patterns of consumption, digital transformation. and climate risks.

Those behind it argue this latest report contributes to increasing evidence that shows a community-led high street should be a central element of any solution to these challenges.

They say community-owned spaces contribute £220 million to the UK economy, and 56p of every £1 they spend stays in the local economy. This compares favourably with only 40p for large private sector firms.

They also argue that, where there is community ownership on a high street, vacancy rates fall, with these spaces providing affordable, appropriate services and products for the community. They also ‘more nimbly meet shifting local demand than traditional high street occupants’.

The report suggests a pathway forward for government to successfully regenerate Britain’s high streets, recommending the following:

  • 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.

Furthermore, the report 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.”

He added: “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.”

With the above in mind, Power to Change is calling for a new £350 million High Street Buyout Fund that will enable local communities to 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 urging the 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, which means 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.”

Power to Change says a High Street Buyout Fund will be ‘a transformational measure’ to help communities acquire assets on the high street. This, it says, has the potential to transform more than 200 neglected high street properties across the country by leveraging £250 million of private, commercial and social investment against a £100 million government grant.

You can read the report in full here.


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