Saving the high street and giving it a Platform

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Rebecca Trevalyan is on a mission to make it easier for communities to access the land and property in their town centres.

Communities can provide… the energy to incubate and sustain whole ecosystems of locally-powered businesses – if they’re invited to participate in the first place.

– Rebecca Trevalyan

Rebecca Trevalyan is on a mission to make it easier for communities to access the land and property in their town centres. She’s the convenor and facilitator of a new town centre property innovation programme called Platform, supported by Power to Change and five other partners – which aims to achieve exactly that.

Rebecca is also co-founder of social enterprise Library of Things, which helps people save money and reduce waste by affordably renting out useful items like drills, sound systems and sewing machines from community hubs.

1. What’s your story? What led you to getting involved with Platform? 

I’ve spent the last eight years developing community-led enterprises like Library of Things and Impact Hub Brixton around South London, and supporting peers to do the same across the UK. I felt the immense power of these neighbourhood hubs to bring diverse people together, and to offer desirable alternatives to lonely consumerism.

I also came to realise that the single biggest barrier to these enterprises taking off everywhere is the lack of access to affordable, secure, long-term land and property. For every £100 we were paying in rent, that was £100 not going towards a local job, training programme or affordable service. So I started to have conversations with property owners, investors, managers, local government and BID leaders – and realised they wanted more community-led spaces and town centres too. Platform is a response to this.

2. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit hard, but they have been struggling for decades. What are the key issues facing town centres from your perspective?

For me the biggest issue facing town centres is the fragmented and corporate nature of property ownership. Currently, the majority of UK town centre property is owned by corporate and overseas investors – whose primary incentive is to extract rent and increase land values. For example, in my local high street, a landlord evicted a locally-managed community space that supported hundreds of friendships and affordable services, and offered the lease to Sports Direct – because Sports Direct could pay higher rents. Where this happens en masse, it has a devastating impact on our social fabric and sense of belonging.

Another key issue is transport. Removing cars from urban centres can have incredible benefits, as cities like Madrid and Oslo have found – from increasing social cohesion to reducing air pollution. But only if there are viable alternatives. If we can’t easily walk, cycle or get public transport into our local town centre, and driving is no longer an option, then obviously we’re much less likely to go there in the first place.

3. Do we need high streets anymore or are they? Shouldn’t we just let the high street die?

For me, the idea of the town centre exclusively as a place to shop is a relic of the past. There’s a lot of romanticism around the idea of ‘the nation of shopkeepers’. But there’s so much our town centres could and should be besides shops. I’ve been part of hyperlocal movements that have sparked community kitchens and living rooms, repair and repurposing spaces, pottery and craft workshops, performance venues, learning and wellbeing spaces, ecological action hubs… More than ever, we need these spaces and reasons to come together – to bump into people who are different from ourselves, to access and share resources, to belong, to support each other through crises like pandemics and food chain disruptions, and to contribute our skills and ideas.

 4. What is Platform and can it really help save the high street?

Platform is a 6-month programme aiming to make it easier for communities to access the spaces and properties in their town centres. To do that, we’re bringing together a diverse mix of people involved in the town centre property system – community entrepreneurs running creative workshops across Liverpool and climbing walls in Southend, local government leaders from small towns in Yorkshire to South London boroughs, national and local property owners and managers, public and private property owners, plus architects, artists, lawyers, Westminster lobbyists…

Platform certainly won’t fix everything, and of course any meaningful change will take time – but I do hope it will create momentum for change around the knotty issue of the land and property system.

5. We’ve had lots of interest in Platform from a range of different organisations. What is the incentive for private developers, property owners and real estate investment trusts to get involved?

For many corporate property owners, the pandemic and the decline of several big high street retail players has made it harder to rent spaces. As one told me, “We’re used to renting our shops to Topshop but we can’t do that anymore! We don’t really know how to rent to community businesses – that’s something we have to learn.”

With a UK average of one in seven shops empty, and with existing rent deals being renegotiated, I’ve heard an acceptance among property owners that things need to change.  Whilst some definitely seem to just want a temporary fix until moving back to ‘business as usual’, others are working on more radical change to make local and independent enterprise a part of their portfolio long-term. Those are the owners I’m interested in working with.

6. Platform has convened a broad range of organisations, is there a sector that you would like to see get involved and what difference would that make?

I’m convinced that, to spark new ecosystems of community businesses to activate our town centres, we need to grow corresponding ecosystems of social and regional funders and banks.

Local banking leader Tony Greenham makes a compelling case for this:

“There are clear and well evidenced gaps for [financing] smaller, low growth, intangible asset based, younger and BAME and female led businesses. This is driven partly by smaller businesses saying they would rather grow more slowly than approach a large high street lender (73% say this!) – lack of trust in big banks? The solution in most countries is a much more diverse banking system – that includes regional banks, and socially orientated and mutual lenders. The UK is the odd one out and the only G7 economy without regional stakeholder banks”

7. At Power to Change we talk a lot about community and community power. How do you define   and how can community help save our high streets?

For me, a local community is like the mycelial network in the soil supporting the whole forest ecosystem. Communities start the movements that pave the way for whole ecosystems of businesses and projects. Crystal Palace Transition Town sparked Library of Things, an arts venue, an urban farm, and a food market that then incubated over 40 food businesses.

Healthy communities, by which I mean diverse communities with many interconnections, spread information rapidly. Whether it’s ‘join my campaign’, ‘support my business’, ‘help me find an accountant (or lost cat)’ – the plethora of WhatsApp, Nextdoor and in-person groups act like relational localised Google searches that make things happen. Crystal Palace Local is a Facebook group with 17,000 members – it’s like an interactive local newspaper.

Communities can provide funding (I’ve led three crowdfunding campaigns, collectively supported by over 1000 people), volunteers, staff, evidence of local needs and demand for new businesses, the entrepreneurs themselves – basically the energy to incubate and sustain whole ecosystems of locally-powered businesses – if they’re invited to participate in the first place.

8. If you could pick one partnership between property owner and community that is a beacon of innovation, what would it be? What is it that makes this partnership work?

Can I be cheeky and pick two?

In the public sector – Islington Council has created a type of lease where, instead of being paid in rents, they are paid in local outcomes, such as increased employment or reduced waste. For example, an Islington-based tech cooperative called Outlandish has accessed buildings to create a workspace where local people can join training events and pathways to employment. I’d be excited to see this in use by local governments across the country.

In the private sector, a property investor and developer called Theo Michell at Bywater Properties has handed decision-making power to local people. In his Belfast development, he recruited a ‘board’ made up of a local business person, civic leader, academic and others, whose role it is to decide which local businesses get to take on the shop units, and what rents they should pay. This means that the businesses occupying the shops are a much more reflective of Belfast, and the rents much fairer for that community, than if Theo were to decide all of this from his office in London. Transferring actual power to communities in this way means genuine trust can be established between developer and community – and that has real potential to be replicated elsewhere.