Policy & Public Affairs Manager
Socially. Economically. Politically.
Growing up in a busy inner-city area of Leeds, my local high street was a bustling hive of activity that drew the community together. Since then, it’s changed, in many of the ways high streets have across the country. The local bank has closed, and betting and pawn shops have proliferated. It’s certainly not suffered in the way some places have – property vacancy isn’t yet a huge problem. But the vibrancy that characterised the street in my childhood is now missing.
High Streets are an important barometer of how people feel about a place. They play a pivotal role in building social as well as economic confidence in a community. New YouGov Polling for Power to Change shows that more than two thirds of people worry about the decline of their high street and the impact this will have on local civic pride. And with shop vacancies at a record 16% high, it is with good reason.
Indeed, focus group work from Public First has shown that, when voters are asked to define what levelling up means to them, the high street comes up unprompted time and time again.
New data from the Local Data Company shows us that persistent high street vacancy – buildings left empty for more than three years – is particularly acute in towns in the ‘so called’ red wall that voted Conservative for the first time in 2019.
This persistent vacancy can contribute to a spiral of economic decline. It means less economic activity and less income for local authorities in business rates. In turn, high streets become less attractive investment opportunities for national businesses, and opportunities for young people to secure their first job are withdrawn.
Whilst it’s clear our high streets must be ‘saved’, that a new solution is needed to ensure we retain these vital community spaces, halting this decline is easier said than done. What we do know is that it can’t be achieved by outside investment alone and that communities need to be in the driving seat.
A new model is needed
Many are now turning to the community-led high street as the answer to these challenges. In places like Hastings, and Dumfries and Bury the benefits of community-led high streets are clear to see. Community owned spaces contribute more than £200m to the UK economy, and more of what they spend stays in the local economy than large private sector firms.
Where there is community ownership, vacancy rates on the high street are reduced and they serve as a ‘destination space’ driving footfall for other businesses. These spaces provide the services and products the community wants and needs.
Importantly, this is popular with voters. YouGov polling for Power to Change shows strong support for local people having access to vacant buildings, and for profits spent on the high street to be reinvested locally.
Barriers to greater community ownership on the high street
There are several barriers in the way of community ownership on the high street.
From access to capital that can move at the pace of private investors, to the skills necessary to navigate the commercial property market, and the opaque and fragmented nature of ownership on the high street.
A coherent set of reforms are needed to make it easier for communities to lead on the high street – from a Community Right to Buy high street assets to the introduction of Community Improvement Districts.
Why now is the time for a High Street Buyout Fund
Too often, we hear stories of opportunistic buyers, with little connection to a place, but with significant money to buy vacant assets and then leaving them vacant for another period – causing a blight on the local community and economy.
The High Street Buyout Fund is the missing piece of the puzzle, which would act opportunistically to purchase important empty high street spaces and then transfer them to community ownership over time.
We’re calling on government to kick-start this fund with a £100m investment by ringfencing money from the Levelling Up Fund. Modelling commissioned by Power to Change shows that this level of investment would in turn leverage up to £250m of social and commercial investment.
We now want to work with a range of stakeholders and experts to complete the design of the fund and then make it a reality.
Whilst there is not a one size fits all to saving our high streets, the High Street Buyout Fund would go a long way to help deliver real change for people on the ground. High streets are essential to healthy, vibrant places and communities. It’s imperative that we put local people back in control of local high streets.