Amongst the many terrible costs of COVID-19, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the places in which we live our daily lives. In our cities, normal patterns of movement and spending have been completely upended. While shops and businesses in city centres have borne the brunt of lockdowns and an extended period of remote working, local neighbourhoods have become more important – particularly as more time and money are spent closer to home.
While some changes and challenges brought about by the pandemic are new, others are merely a continuation or acceleration of pre-existing trends. Lockdowns have driven a big increase in online shopping, which has in turn hastened the decline of high street retail. The demise of several well known high street retailers over the last year has also seen a renewed policy focus on what we should do about our high streets. If mass retail is no longer the answer, what is? What other activities should take place on our high streets and in our town centres?
This report shows that there is a clear and compelling argument for allowing communities to answer that question. The way that local groups have supported their more vulnerable neighbours during the pandemic has powerfully demonstrated the importance of community and the central role of local action. However, as we look forward to a recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, the question of what role our neighbourhoods and communities will continue to play remains on the agenda.
Based on quantitative and qualitative research carried out with the help of a wide range of town centre stakeholders – including community groups, local authorities, place managers, Business Improvement Districts, retailers, landlords, academics and civic societies – we conclude that:
• There is a natural alignment between a move away from retail dominance and towards greater community input. When retailers close, they leave vacant units on high streets. Local communities are usually the best placed to propose and deliver new uses for these units, keeping them vibrant and attractive.
• Community businesses and other local enterprises that reinvest their revenues into continued local improvement have a strong track record of delivering social and economic value.
• The commercial property market may need to adjust if community organisations are to act as operators on the high street. High and inflexible rents, as well as fragmented ownership, can act as barriers to positive community-led change.
• The extension of permitted development rights to cover commercial to residential conversions could threaten high street viability if it means too many commercial units are converted into homes.
• More meaningful and widespread community involvement will be a necessary part of reformulating the high street’s role. Broad and inclusive participation is a prerequisite for success.
Successful high street renewal will require a genuine partnership between all town centre stakeholders: private, public and community sectors must work together. Current high street recovery programmes, particularly the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) High Street Challenge, offer a practical opportunity to do this. There are a range of possibilities for how community involvement in high streets can be structured and funded.
These include the idea of “Community Improvement Districts” (CIDs), similar to the successful Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) model. We argue that it is better to think of a Community Improvement District as a duty to meaningfully include communities in processes of renewal, rather than as a specific governance model.
Our research suggests that:
• The principles and values that guide community governance in town centres are more important than the legal form this governance takes.
• It is generally better to work with and through established groups and mechanisms, rather than creating new groups at the first stage of engagement.
• The first step for groups seeking to create a high street community governance structure is to co-create a vision for that high street and the role it will play in people’s lives.
• Businesses – particularly small businesses – create social as well as economic value on our high streets, and the people who work on them should be part of these discussions.
• Community governance models gain much from volunteer and in-kind support, but they still need funding. Levies on residential property should not be the only funding source, since these are likely to be regressive and could risk deepening economic inequalities between areas if added onto
the existing council tax system.
In summary, we recommend that:
• High streets and town centres should create inclusive strategies for renewal, with communities as key stakeholders. These strategies could be initiated by local authorities, or alternatively BIDs, other place partnerships and community groups could begin the process and involve local authorities at a later stage.
• National and local government should fund the development of these strategies. The programmes and initiatives for high streets coming on stream now are a welcome development, but do not yet go far enough.
• National government should reconsider the extension of permitted development rights on changes of use from commercial to residential properties. Some residential conversion can be positive – but maintaining a diverse core of activity in high streets is key to making sure people still want to spend time there.
• National government should review the powers of local authorities to intervene in high streets where there are cases of market failure. Potential changes could include facilitating compulsory purchase in instances of delinquent ownership, or considering “compulsory leasing” powers for commercial properties.
• National government should ensure that the upcoming Community Ownership Fund is flexible and appropriately targeted. Match-funding requirements could limit its effectiveness where it is most needed and applications for revenue funding should be allowed so that sustainable business plans for community-owned assets can be developed.
More detail on these recommendations can be found at the end of the report.