Our discussion of the diverse uses and functions of the high street illustrates how complex a place it is. The range of agencies, stakeholders and organisations responsible for managing and regulating the high street mirrors this complexity, with overlapping and connected groups responsible for different elements.
To make sense of this complexity, the following framework 34 categorises the different realms of concern as:
• Physical fabric – the container of activity, often historic in origin and sensitive to change.
• Places of exchange – of social, cultural, political and economic interaction.
• Movement corridors – channels of linkage and communication through the city.
• Real estate – diverse uses and investments in multiple and fragmented ownerships.
Of course, all of these elements are interconnected and impact on each other. But frequently, professional and disciplinary silos lead to a narrow focus and responsibility. There is often no one body that can oversee and coordinate all the actions and functions necessary to a successful place. For example, transport planners may focus on traffic flow, parking and walkability. Commercial landlords may focus on income streams or the capital values of their properties. Planners may focus on land use and frontages. Traders’ associations might focus principally on their profitability.
Even where local authorities may be considered to have strategic oversight, internal uncoordinated working is a perennial problem. Councils do not necessarily operate as one: different departments can respond to their own professional briefs.
Similarly, high streets and town centres do not always map neatly onto administrative boundaries, with several in London falling over multiple boroughs.
Importantly, the institutional focus on the high street as a place for retail has led to neglect of the “exchange” function of high streets as places for social and community use. Even where other functions are better catered for by local management, this area is typically overlooked.
Town centre management and Business Improvement Districts
Across the country, there are some dedicated bodies and organisations that take a broader view of high streets and town centres. The professional discipline of town centre management – alternatively called place management – exists to coordinate different stakeholders in a town centre with their range of interests and perspectives. They aim to form a collective vision for how the high street should be operated and managed. The structure of the bodies responsible for town centre management varies widely. A Housing, Communities & Local Government select committee session on reimagining the high street heard from the industry umbrella organisation that:
They can sit within local authorities under some formal town centre management scheme or economic development planning. They can be independent of the council in town centre partnerships. They can be Business Improvement Districts, so they are led by the local business community, funded by the local business community. There are community interest companies and development trusts. There are lots of different forms across the country. 35
Their common defining feature is a partnership between the different stakeholders and interests in an area. 35
Not everywhere has town centre management bodies in place, however. Even where in the past the local authority may have assumed responsibility, cuts in funding since 2010 have resulted in local authorities focusing resources and capacity on delivering statutory services such as social care – with strategic placemaking and management losing out.
As a result, only 10 per cent of London’s town centres have a town centre strategy in place. Clearly, formal planning policy responds to many aspects of the town centre – but as discussed, local development plans are not broad enough to cover all aspects of how high streets function. Similarly, the time they take to develop and approve means that they aren’t dynamic enough to respond to changing facts on the ground.
One particularly successful type of place management body is the Business Improvement District (BID) mentioned above. BIDs arose in response to the need for more holistic place management, and since their introduction in 2004 in the UK, they have expanded steadily. In London, they have taken off particularly quickly, doubling in number between 2011 and 2016 – although growth has slowed in recent years. At last count there were 69 BIDs in London, 37 making up around 20 per cent of the total number in the country. BIDs differ from other place partnerships in that they have the ability to charge an additional precept (known as the levy) on top of the business rates that occupiers of non-domestic properties pay.
Establishing a BID requires a ballot of all the properties which come under the defined geographic footprint of the proposed BID. If the property occupiers vote for the ballot, they pay a defined proportion of the rateable value of their properties (typically around 1.5 per cent): this provides a guaranteed source of income for the next five years until the ballot is repeated. The income then allows the BID to invest in the area, with improvements targeted at enhancing the operating environment for business occupiers.
Reflecting the wider diversity of town centre management arrangements, there is a broad range of type, ethos, scale and practice where BIDs are concerned. The vast majority are town centre-focused, but there are also smaller numbers of specific sector-focused BIDs, reflecting the flexibility of the enabling legislation. In London we have seen BIDs assuming a greater strategic role in placemaking, using their coordinating power to lever in additional sources of funding and catalyse significant regeneration projects. 38
The growth of BIDs across the country – and their ability to raise a revenue and become self-sustaining – has led to proposals that use a similar model to encourage greater community participation in local decision making. Thus, Business Improvement Districts become “Community Improvement Districts”.
The following section explores what Community Improvement Districts are and how they might work, with reference to other efforts at formally involving communities in place-based decision-making processes.
Community Improvement Districts and community governance
The initial idea for Community Improvement Districts came in 2011 from an analysis showing that previous attempts at formally devolving power to local communities had not been a success. The introduction of legislation to enable a new generation of urban parish councils resulted in only one being successfully established in London. These were relatively procedurally burdensome, and this was a barrier to communities getting involved. 39 Similarly, their “all-purpose” nature could be limiting. People need a reason to get involved in local democracy and activity, which takes time and energy. Typically, that hinges on a defined issue of local importance.
Where there is public appetite to engage in local activity around particular issues – such as safeguarding a valued community asset, or becoming directly involved in community-led planning – this has regularly been expressed through some of the “Community Rights” of the Localism Act. Community Rights were intended to create a new era of community power, allowing communities a say in local service provision, spatial planning, and the operation of their local property market. However, these powers were not backed up with sufficient resources to make them meaningful, which has limited their potential. 40 For example, there have been few community purchases of buildings under the Assets of Community Value regime, as cash-strapped organisations are expected to pay market prices for property – although the Ivy House pub in Nunhead, London provides an example that is much valued by the local community. 41 Similarly, limited revenue funding for Neighbourhood Planning has held back what is a time-consuming process requiring technical expertise.
Another important barrier has been the reluctance of some formal institutions to share power with community groups. There can be a tendency for public authorities to be suspicious of community activity that responds to a different logic than formal representative democratic structures. Community groups can consider their legitimacy to arise from their embeddedness in a place, their connection with an issue, or their common vision – rather than from a particular governance structure. This can make for an awkward fit with the cultures of public service provision. Even where there is a statutory duty for local authorities to support initiatives that require a formal structure, like Neighbourhood Forums, there is evidence of reticence and sometimes even obstruction. 42
The CID model was initially suggested as a remedy to these issues. Its institutional design would be similar to a Business Improvement District in that it would be:
• Established through a local ballot, with renewal every five years.
• Operating within a defined geographic area.
• Able to raise a levy on council taxpayers.
• Focused on specific issues, agreed at the time of establishment, with expenditure limited to these issues.
The thinking was that, as BIDs have been relatively well received by both local authorities and national government, this mechanism could provide a boost for community power where other governance-led initiatives had struggled. The original idea of a Community Improvement District was not explicitly focused on town centres and high streets, 43 and some recent calls restating the case for them have left the question of where they are best applied open.
However, as the high street has become an area of increasing policy concern, and the natural alignment and growing interest in greater community involvement has crystallised, much of the current debate on CIDs involves their applicability in this context. In 2019, the Housing, Communities & Local Government select committee suggested that BIDs should be replaced by Community Improvement Districts. 44 Other suggested names have included “Neighbourhood Improvement Districts” and “Place Improvement Districts”.
CIDs, BIDs and others
The case for some kind of mechanism which allows communities a seat at the table is strong. The framework for understanding the functions and responsibilities of the high street suggests that a clearly responsible body or institution is missing.
We could conceptualise this “missing link” as the space which a CID should respond to. Recognising that BIDs are not necessarily responding to this explicit community and social focus does not undermine their successes in achieving better whole-place management. It is simply a recognition that such a focus was not the intentional purpose of their design. However, that is not to say that BIDs could not fulfil this function if the right conditions were in place. While many are currently distant from communities, some BIDs are already working in a more community-oriented way. Camden Town Unlimited operates the Camden Collective, a project which provides free workspace in previously vacant buildings to local startups in Camden. Camden Town Unlimited also help deliver the Camden Future Changemakers fund, which sees local 16- to 25-year-olds decide on priorities and allocations for local grants. Similarly, in Victoria, the BID provides important resources for the local Neighbourhood Forum by carrying out their administrative functions on their behalf.
In Scotland, the UK’s first official Community Improvement District, using the BID model, is in the process of being launched. This demonstrates how the BID model can be turned towards community development in the right circumstances.
Case study: Possilpark: A pioneering Community Improvement District
Possilpark in Glasgow is the UK’s first Community Improvement District, an emerging project which demonstrates both the adaptability of the BID model and the relationships between local economic growth and community development.
Possilpark is an area which has suffered from decline since the closure of the largest employer in the area, the Saracen Foundry – after which the high street, Saracen Street, was named. Facing a number of social and economic challenges, the impetus for the establishment of the Improvement District came from a small group of local traders who wanted to do something that would help solve the problems in the area.
Prior to the pandemic, a plan for establishing the Improvement District was agreed which set out priorities for “Remaking Saracen” around a range of business and community initiatives. The BID is atypical in that it comprises traders as well as local “anchor institutions” – non-profits which are rooted and have a long-term interest in the place as well as a sizeable impact on the local economy. From the outset, it had a purpose that was broader than just local commercial viability. The process of agreeing the boundaries of the BID – and getting local partners together to agree a strategic vision for the area – required learning and sharing of perspectives. For example, one of the BID members was the largest social landlord in the area, and had long been involved in supporting the local community beyond housing provision – but hadn’t considered the high street as an area of concern until that point. Similarly, voluntary sector groups that sat within the footprint and focused on “frontline” service provision had not been involved in local economic development previously.
The variance in approaches of BIDs suggests that a range of factors can influence how community-oriented they are, and how well they work as a partnership. The governance model is not determinative in and of itself. In an interview with a BID operator in inner London, the point was reiterated:
“The profile of BID leaders is all-important. Having a successful
partnership means you need the right person.”
A separate interview with a BID operator in the East of England, involved in a multi-stakeholder partnership for their town, made a similar case for the structure not being determinative of success:
“The BID model is a part of the answer, but it’s not the solution.
You don’t often need the architecture of governance of BIDs to
bring people together – there are informal ways to do it.”
The debate around the precise form of a CID has been renewed recently. In October 2020, a discussion paper from Power to Change 45 outlined the following potential suite of options for the design of a CID.
Table 2 shows how each option has relative strengths and weaknesses. For town centre stakeholders who are keen to enable greater community involvement, the question of which is the “best” model can seem to be the most important one.
The attraction of a BID-style model – whether it comprises residents and businesses combined, or residents alone – is the ability to charge a levy in order to raise funds for community improvements. Community involvement in town centres costs money – both to pay for the engagement itself, including convening time and meeting space, and to pay for some of the changes that people want to see to their high streets.
The Possilpark example shows that with a collective vision in place, the BID model can work to generate revenue from a broader range of sources than commonly appreciated, although it has to do this through persuasion rather than requirement. While the revenue generated from traders alone is relatively small, the other anchor institutions within the footprint contribute enough to create a meaningful economic lever collectively. Having different organisations involved that are each eligible to apply for alternative sources of grant funding has added additional value and the ability to raise more money.
However, it is important to note that this is a voluntary arrangement. The BID model in this instance has been used as a way of bringing partners together around a shared interest in the locality, but due to delays brought about by the pandemic the Possilpark arrangement has not yet been formalised under legislation. Similarly, local community groups are included in the BID, but not residents themselves directly.
The argument made in favour of a CID model that could levy a charge on residents directly, with residents voting on whether they wanted to accept such a levy, is that it would address some of the issues with council tax. Council tax has long been held up as an example of a badly designed and outdated system. Tax bands are levied on occupiers of residential property, linked to property valuations from 1993 despite wholesale change to the property market since then. However, if a CID model based on levying residents was to work with current council tax infrastructure, a levy would need to be based on property occupancy – everyone who lived in a terrace of identical houses would pay an identical amount. This system is known to be deeply regressive. 46 Lower-income residents, who may have the most to gain from town centre improvements, would be the least able to pay. This leads to a risk that wealthier areas raise more money from residents and are thus able to create more attractive high street experiences, drawing footfall away from high streets where nearby residents are poorer.
We should not rule out levies for CIDs, as they could work in some places. But they can never be the full solution – and requiring them to be so risks making inequality worse. Grant funding from trusts and foundations – together with investment from national, regional and local government, allocated most to the places which need it most – will continue to be an essential ingredient for community involvement in town centres over the short to medium term. Adding an additional layer onto a system which already needs root-and-branch reform risks being a sub-optimal “patch”, rather than a fix, and could even create worse outcomes.
Looking at these arguments together, we argue that caution is needed when considering the best way forward. The fact that disagreement (or lack of consensus between different interests) is a recurring theme indicates that good institutional design can’t solve everything. In the long run, the processes and principles of community involvement in high street renewal may be more important than the structure used as the starting point. The next chapter discusses why this is so.