Community ownership: the future of high streets

Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change
Community ownership of historic buildings is the key to unlocking the high street of the future. Local authorities have a vital role in enabling this.

Walking through my local town centre today, where every other shop now stands empty, it’s a sad sight and a far cry from the bustling civic centre it once was.

The COVID-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns have had a devastating impact on our town centres. But they’ve only accelerated what has been decades of decline driven by people’s increasing comfort with online shopping and the growth of out-of-town retail.

So, what are we to do? Reviving the UK’s high streets can seem like an impossible task – after all, many high street strategies have been tried and failed. But what many of these attempts crucially failed to do is recognise the value of people and their heritage in creating distinctiveness.

Unleashing community power

While not every high street across the country is a picture postcard scene like The Shambles in York or The Lanes in Brighton, almost all have their roots in rich cultural, social or physical heritage.

From Victorian townhalls, Georgian coaching inns and Medieval churches, through to 19th century market halls, factory buildings and sports and social clubs. These spaces can be found on high streets across the country. Often landmark buildings in a town centre, they are highly distinctive, engrained in the local community and often a huge source of civic pride.

At Power to Change, we believe that community business has the power to revitalise overlooked heritage. We believe it plays a major role in regenerating our nation’s crumbling high streets and building a civic high street model fit for the future.

Alongside their positive economic impact, community businesses deliver a range of important social outcomes. These include reducing social isolation, improving health and wellbeing and community cohesion, and fostering local pride and empowerment. Eight in ten community businesses name these impacts as central to their approach.

Two women standing behind a market stall
Stall holders at the rejuvenated Radcliffe Market Hall in Greater Manchester, a destination point in the town centre

Moving more high street properties into community ownership is also a critical part of turning things around. Research carried out by the Estates Gazette for Power to Change showed that ownership matters. The biggest owners of vacant units are real estate and property companies. Just one in ten vacant units are owned by the public or social sector. Greater community ownership is a clear route to tackling the blight of empty shops.

The importance of local government partnership

Of course, funders like us have a responsibility to ensure there is the necessary investment and support available for communities to take ownership of heritage spaces. However, what these examples and our wider experience tell us is that communities need their local council to act as an enabler and to unlock doors, both materially and metaphorically.

We need more appreciation – from both sides – of the opportunities that working in partnerships can present. The high street is not dead. However, its regeneration relies on a wider spread of local government to see the potential of community-owned heritage assets becoming the anchors of the future high street. Then we can begin building civic high streets fit for the future.

Key steps that councils can take to help create this partnership include:

  • A Community Asset Transfer (CAT) policy. Councils should develop, embed, and regularly update a CAT policy that is understood across the council. This provides clarity for community groups that may have ideas for council-owned space, as well as officers across the council that are less embedded in community partnership work.
  • Developing a capacity support offer for the community. Often, groups have ideas and routes for new uses for council-owned spaces. Local authorities can help turn these ideas into reality by providing early-stage business planning support and small grants.
  • Brokerage. Local authorities can play a critical brokerage role in connecting community organisations with landlords of vacant properties. Particularly landlords willing to see their properties occupied rather than left empty. The local authority is in a stronger position to negotiate on behalf of community organisations.

This approach of course needs communities to engage with councils in the spirit of partnership and collaboration. It means clearly articulating what your ownership or management of high street space will deliver for the place, and how this aligns with the council’s plans and strategy.

Partnership in practice

In towns like Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, and Bodmin, Cornwall, community ownership and management of heritage spaces, enabled by supportive local authorities, is having a transformative effect.

Radcliffe Market Hall

Radcliffe Market Hall
Radcliffe Market Hall

Radcliffe Market Hall is a rejuvenated market in Greater Manchester which has been in operation since 1851.

The market owners, Bury Council, spent £1million in 2014 refurbishing the market to improve its image and attract more shoppers. However, footfall remained low, with just five stall holders in operation.

Since 2018, it has been managed and operated by the Radcliffe Market Hall Community Benefit Society. It now hosts a traditional market that is open four days a week, monthly speciality markets and a night-time dine-in street food market. It also serves as a venue for community activities, performances and arts events.

Now with 32 market stalls, Radcliffe Market Hall has become a destination point in the town centre, encouraging more people – both from the local area and the wider region – into the high street. And it’s proving resilient, continuing to trade throughout the pandemic.

Bodmin Old Library

Bodmin Old Library
Bodmin Old Library

The Old Library is an important building on the main shopping street in Bodmin. Dating from 1896, it housed the town’s library until 2017 when the library was re-located, leaving the future of the building uncertain. Local Community Interest Company, Into Bodmin, proposed a new arts centre there in 2017.

Cornwall County Council had planned to market the Old Library for redevelopment as flats. Deciding instead to maintain it as a community building, the Council provided Into Bodmin with a 10-year lease with a scaling rent.

Into Bodmin secured funding from a range of sources – initially from Arts Council England, but also from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The National Lottery Community Fund and Power to Change. Flexible funding allowed the business to develop and become a local presence.

It is now a community hub serving multiple functions: as an events space, providing office space and a café, with workshops and other community activities.

Find out more

These resources for councils and community businesses provide further guidance on how to build successful partnerships:

About Vidhya Alakeson

Vidhya is the founding Chief Executive of Power to Change, which supports the growth of community businesses across England as a means to creating more prosperous and cohesive communities.

She has extensive policy experience, having worked in a number of think tanks and in government in both the UK and US. Previously, Vidhya was Deputy Chief Executive at the Resolution Foundation, a leading public policy think tank working on issues that affect low and middle income families.

Vidhya is a board member on both the Government’s High Street Task Force and at More in Common, and is a trustee of the Young Foundation. She regularly advises organisations on the role of community business in promoting regeneration and writes and speaks regularly on issues relating to community-led development and inclusive growth.

  • Views expressed in the Future Heritage blog series are those of the authors, not necessarily of The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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