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LocalGov.co.uk – Your authority on UK local government

by Ozva Admin
It's time to rethink the retail-dominated model of our high street image

It’s no secret that our urban centers are struggling. And with the cost of living crisis biting and a recession on the horizon, the money people have in their pockets is dwindling fast. As a result, we are likely to see another wave of vacant prime retail locations in towns and cities across the country this winter.

To revive our high streets, we must rethink the dominant retail model, so they can once again become vital civic centers. We urgently need spaces where local communities can come together to work, play, learn, share and congregate. These civic spaces are even more important as we head into a recession, which will no doubt drive increased demand for services as people struggle to make ends meet.

Leveling our communities

Despite cuts to departmental budgets in the recent fall declaration, the return of Michael Gove to the Department of Equalization, Housing and Communities indicates that Rishi Sunak takes the Equalization agenda more seriously than Liz Truss. It is the best opportunity we have to revitalize urban and urban centers, especially as we weather the economic storm ahead. They are instrumental when it comes to spreading opportunities across the UK.

A power to change – the independent trust that strengthens communities through community businesses – we believe that community ownership is one of the best ways to level up. That is why we are urging the government to leverage its Community Property Fund and help communities buy high street property by setting up a new £350m Street Purchase Fund. We need to fill empty stores with community organizations that support local people and contribute to the local economy, like The Annex in Hartlepool which has pivoted in recent months to provide warm hubs for those struggling to heat their homes.

As we have seen with COVID-19 pandemic, charities and community businesses are on the front lines of responding to communities, serving people’s needs in creative ways. We are seeing a similar response now to the cost of living crisis, as community businesses, like Main Street Love Wavertree in Liverpool see an increase in demand for food service and warm spaces. Therefore, protecting community spaces is more important than ever.

Resilient Main Streets Through Community Property

Community ownership on our main streets also makes them more resilient in the face of economic challenges. Our research shows that major streets with higher levels of community ownership have lower vacancy rates. In fact, community owned spaces contribute £220 million to the UK economy.

Also, unlike large national and multinational companies, they do not extract the money that is earned. Profits and financial investment tend to stay local: 56p of every £1 spent on a community business stays in that community, compared to just 40p for large private sector companies. By drawing people back to Main Street, community businesses also drive local footfall, helping the stores they co-exist with.

Socially, they offer so many additional benefits. They address the growing problem of social isolation by bringing people together, improving their quality of life and promoting community well-being. Given the mental health issues associated with the cost of living crisis, this kind of community spirit has never been more important.

Community spaces also offer enriching ways for people to spend their time, such as exploring art, learning a new skill, or experiencing live music. They show that there is life beyond shopping by providing a destination space for people to meet and learn. By providing training opportunities, they help support those furthest from the job market to get back to work too. This is especially important given that unemployment is expected to increase in the coming months.

Drink The Great Onion in Bootle as a case in point. It is a community center located in a shopping center that offers support and training for a variety of local people and businesses. It has a physical commercial space for small merchants and local manufacturers. There is an employability center to help job seekers, providing personalized advice, training and assistance with applications. There’s also a vibrant community space that’s rented out for yoga classes, book clubs, and charity fundraisers.

A new vision for the regeneration of main streets

The reality is that top-down regeneration does not work. Evidence shows that centralized approaches have little or no lasting impact on abandoned places. Local people are best placed to understand the needs of their own community. They know what is going to work best in your specific location. Additionally, distinctive urban centers are critical to civic pride.

To save our main streets, a radical reinvention of who gets to wield power in this country is essential. If the government wants to realize its leveling ambitions, it must return power and funding to the local population at the neighborhood level. And you must build a High Street buyout fund. By doing so, you will support the communities on its main streets to provide key services to the local population, who now more than ever need access to these vital spaces.

nick plumb is head of policy and public affairs at power to change

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