The new civic high street

by Ben Stephenson, BAS Consultancy

The New Civic High Street was the culmination of a series of webinars run by Power to Change, looking at how our rapidly transforming town centres provide opportunities for radical thinking. Each of the webinars have examined different aspects of the debate, the first looking at how community governance models can be recast to include a wider range of views from local people, and the second examining issues surrounding landownership and high street curation.

Reports from Danny Kruger MP and retailer Bill Grimsey have influenced a groundswell of comment in recent months as communities start to consider their part in the post-pandemic recovery of their places. Local response to need has contributed to this too. Communities have been involved in Mutual Aid schemes and foodbanks in larger numbers than ever before. Local people have seen first-hand how they can mitigate the vulnerabilities of independently owned businesses. The network of grass roots support has strengthened, illustrating the unparalleled power of collective effort not seen since the war.

Danny Kruger and Bill Grimsey took part in the panel discussion, joined by research lead for the High Streets Task Force and Director of the Institute for Place Management, Professor Cathy Parker and researcher at LSE, Polly Swan. Polly’s overview of the research conducted for Power to Change demonstrated that community owned businesses, often stewards of important town centre assets, are already changing high streets up and down the UK. These businesses very often focus on social value and inclusion, knitting communities together and providing reasons to access high streets as an alternative to the retail monoculture.

As Chair Vidhya Alakeson pointed out, diverse town centres providing civic functions, education, professional services, health, public gathering space and an inclusive evening economy have been a feature of our places, but not for half a century.

Bill Grimsey mentioned that his recommendations from the first Grimsey Review in 2013 included a call for diverse high streets, with ‘localism on steroids’ providing the tools for local authorities and citizens to deliver this. Additionally, the managing the transition effectively requires an upskilling of local leadership, a contracted system which relies less on the car to meet the needs of communities, and a renewed valuing of heritage.

Cathy Parker echoed this sentiment, her research suggesting that local centres of power have lost control of the economic, social, political and cultural heart of communities. The high street has moved from the agora, the epicentre of local life to being an investment vehicle for pension funds and big business – turning a landscape to a blandscape. The new civic high street is produced via one of four strategies for renewal – the IPM calls them the Four R’s: Restructuring, Repositioning, Rebranding and Reinventing.

Danny Kruger described the renaissance of his constituency town Devizes, which is thriving on the back of independent retail, civil society and a strong sense of heritage. Town and rural areas are becoming viable again, enabled by technology, although Kruger believes the car remains the lifeblood of many rural economies. Libraries and churches are an essential part of the new civic high street and must diversify their functions to meet new patterns of demand. Brokerage services will enable more people to access volunteer services and provide local people with a sense of agency to influence their place, via devolution and new governance mechanisms, such as pop-up parishes and community improvement districts.

Bill Grimsey believes that a shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism is needed to prevent the scourge of absentee landlords seen in countless towns across the country. The shift of ownership to overseas investors with no care for, or connection to, the locality is preventing progress. He believes that the market has failed town centres and asserts the need for a more holistic vision for places driven by communities which can guide investment.

Danny Kruger stressed a contrary position, echoed in the second webinar, that the scale of need in high streets means that international investment is necessary, but should work for our towns, and sit alongside community ownership as one of a suite of models. He added that local leadership needs to be accountable and transparent, and that the focus needs to be on long term stewardship, which can be forgotten with every new competitive government funding process. Decisions on investment cannot come from Westminster and devolution must reflect a more organic model of community power.

The webinar was followed by a workshop in which attendees collaborated to consider the opportunities for community participation in the high street, how to mitigate the risks, and some of the principles that could drive the new civic high street. These ideas, along with a distillation of the three webinars, will be written up into a report with a set of policy asks of government.

Missed the webinar? You can watch it back here:

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