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To fix the high street, we have to think local

As we emerge now from lockdown into new patterns of work and commuting, many of us will continue to spend more time locally, says Vidhya Alakeson
200-year-old Debenhams was just one causality of the high street. Image credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

Covid has changed the way we think about many things and the high street is no different. Following a year in which online jumped to 36 per cent of overall retail sales and the collapse of chain retailers gathered furious pace, no one believes retail can form the backbone of the high street any longer.

The future of the high street will be more civic than commercial, rooted in public services, community use, housing and workspace as much as retail, leisure and hospitality

For that future to emerge, we need change in two important areas. 

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First, we need greater support for small and independent local businesses, social enterprises and community businesses on the high street. We need to ensure that they come through the pandemic and have opportunities in recovery as they offer the diversity and local difference that can help rebuild our town centres. Research by the London School of Economics published by Power to Change last year demonstrated that community businesses add diversity to town centres which drives footfall and helps build local identity, whether that’s a workspace, makers’ space, arts centre or community hub. 

Encouragingly, large-scale owners of high-street properties are recognising they need to do something different or their business model won’t survive. With 40 per cent more retail capacity than we need, they must find ways to get new businesses into their shops and shopping centres. New types of leases from turnover leases to social value leases are creating more opportunities for independent and social purpose businesses to get a foothold where they struggled in the past. L&G, for example, is providing a number of social enterprises with free space in its shopping centre in Poole, recognising that vibrant businesses draw people in, benefitting the financial sustainability of the whole centre, even if they forgo some rent.

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Second, we need to put community organisations right at the heart of decisions about the future of our town centres. They understand their place, its heritage and identity, and are perfectly positioned to shape a vision that can respond to the needs and passions of local people. We need a new governance model for high streets that gives community organisations a seat at the table. We should build on the success of business improvement districts and update them for the high street of tomorrow that will be mixed use and more local, creating community improvement districts. These can bring businesses, the public sector and communities together to make decisions about the future of our town centres, rooted in the knowledge and understanding of communities. This model is emerging in Scotland, with the creation of the first community improvement district in Possilpark in Glasgow. England should follow suit. 

As we emerge now from lockdown into new patterns of work and commuting, many of us will continue to spend more time locally. This has real benefits for town centres

Ultimately, a better future for our town centres depends on greater alignment between those who own the town centre and those who have the strongest interests in its long-term future: local people. Current ownership is too often remote and fragmented, making it difficult to curate the high street and deliver on even the best future vision. We can turn the pandemic into an opportunity to significantly accelerate community ownership on the high street by securing vacant high-street properties for community ownership now before they get snapped up for private benefit. A social buy-out fund supported by government could turbo charge community ownership, securing our town centres for their communities for the long term. 

Town centres that are more local and more community-led also hold the promise of being ones that are more climate-friendly. Through the pandemic, the need for social distancing has meant that space once focused on cars has now been prioritised for people to free up space for outdoor socialising and hospitality. We need to maintain this flexibility in how outdoor space in our town centres is used and continue to prioritise people over petrol. 

As we emerge now from lockdown into new patterns of work and commuting, many of us will continue to spend more time locally. This has real benefits for town centres, particularly if they can adapt and provide more workspaces and other amenities for workers, as well as potentially for the climate, as we reduce travel. The concept of the 15-minute city which once seemed quite alien to traditional patterns of living in this country now starts to make sense as we see how much of our work, home and leisure time can all be focused around our local community.

For too long we’ve talked about the death of the high street. It’s time to move on, to focus on how we support a new model of the high street into being and the opportunities this can create for communities and society as we look to recovery. 

Vidhya Alakeson is Chief Executive of Power to Change, an independent charitable trust supporting community business. powertochange.org.uk