Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join Platform Places on a visit to some of the brilliant community businesses and other social enterprises driving change in their communities in Liverpool and the Wirral. Our purpose was not just to hear about the work these organisations do but also to discuss the challenges they have faced in accessing spaces to start or grow their business.
Despite high levels of high street vacancy, many community businesses face difficulties accessing property for use in a long-term and sustainable way. As its co-founder Bex Trevelyan recently explained, Platform Places exists to change the culture of property ownership in our town centres and unlock more spaces for community use by convening Local Property Partnerships between councils, communities and asset owners. The timing of our visit was also opportune as at Power to Change, we have been working on a new report on high street vacancy and how enabling community-powered high streets can bring more of these vacant spaces into use for community benefit and drive regeneration.
Throughout our visit, we met people who are transforming into meaningful community spaces in a variety of different and creative ways, from Homebaked Bakery and Kitty’s Laundrette in Anfield to the Future Yard music venue in Birkenhead and Make CIC’s spaces for creatives on both sides of the Mersey. But a common thread throughout their stories was the challenge of finding suitable assets to deliver services and create space for their communities, for the long term. Other challenges around asset purchases for community businesses include accessing appropriate finance and competing with private property investors.
Community organisations who can purchase assets are bringing social purpose to property development. By taking over high street and town centre property and bringing it into community ownership, these organisations are ensuring that the social and economic value created in these spaces stays in the local community. This is contrary to the practice of property speculation, where little regard is given to whether property is thriving or vacant and run down. In each place that we visited, the organisations had a strong sense of where this practice is being used, but little means to fight it. We heard stories about vacant property that has passed between multiple owners for a profit whilst remaining empty and underutilised.
In addition to these ownership challenges, we saw how important it is that local partners understand and trust the vision of community organisations. We heard how Wirral Council is acting as an enabler for local community businesses by passing on central government investment through the Town Deal for Birkenhead to support community ownership and property development by several community businesses in the local creative industries. Having established relationships with local community organisations, as well as having community and voluntary sector representation on the Town Deal Board, has helped Wirral Council to recognise the major economic and social value added by community businesses. It has also helped prepare the Council to fund projects as part of its town centre regeneration programme that it is not directly involved in delivering.
We finished our visit in the town of New Brighton. A once bustling seaside town that suffered decades of decline, New Brighton is being transformed through the work of Rockpoint Leisure, a private development and regeneration company that is also trying to do property development differently, with a strong focus on community engagement and creating destination spaces for local residents and visitors. New Brighton’s town centre is now home to independent shops, creative and event spaces and vibrant murals depicting the history and bright vision for the future of the area.
While the challenges facing our high streets and town centres are complex, organisations like Platform Places and the community businesses we visited in Liverpool show that communities have an answer. By bringing underutilised property back into use for community benefit and creating activities and opportunities for local people, community businesses can help to reverse the trend of declining high streets and drive locally-led regeneration.
On 10th May, Power to Change will publish our new report, presenting an analysis of persistent vacancy rates in 100 town centres in England and the picture of property ownership in these places. Drawing on input on the state of our high streets from community business leaders and other high streets experts and a comparative analysis of international policies to tackle high street vacancy, it sets forward policy recommendations for the next government to build the community-powered high streets of the future.
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