In the foregoing chapters, we have discussed the scale of transformation necessary to reimagine the high street, as well as the high-level thinking it inevitably requires. We have looked at the need for “whole place” thinking, inclusion of all stakeholders and new ways of working with communities. So how do we put these principles into practice?
This final chapter has two parts. First, we outline a range of practical guidance for people and groups who want to start up or build on community involvement with their town centre. Second, we make some broader recommendations for national and local government on how to enable community involvement in more places.
Practical guidance for people building involvement in local high streets
Creating a strategy
The starting point for the strategic renewal of a high street must (by definition) be to first create a strategy and, building on this, a joint vision for the place. 90 per cent of high streets in London do not currently have such a strategy, and creating one can act as a catalyst for community engagement. As one community activist organising a town centre partnership told us:
“For communities to be involved, there needs to be an opportunity. It needs to align with something. Just creating a new mechanism and hoping for the best won’t do it”.
We might see a Community Improvement District as a high street or town centre that genuinely involves local people in decision making – rather than as a defined and specific type of governance vehicle.
If there are no community involvement processes currently in place around a local high street or town centre, we believe that local authorities should initiate them. They have much to gain from keeping high streets vibrant and responsive to the needs of their communities, and they often have existing connections to local residents and businesses. As we move into recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, some local authorities have told us that they are increasingly interested in supporting their local high streets. Where there are existing community or business groups around a local town centre, the local authority should work with them: we discuss this further below.
In some instances, local authorities will be unwilling to take on this role. In that case, local groups should feel confident to work with local people and organisations on discussions about the future of their high street. In general, we believe that models of community involvement that involve the local authority as a partner have the greatest chance of success and longevity. But in some circumstances it is possible for local people and businesses to successfully transform a high street without local authority involvement.
Community groups should also understand that the types of organisation eligible for funding will vary according to the grant-making body in question. For instance, the Future High Streets Fund requires that local authorities bid for funding, but the GLA High Streets Challenge allows any type of organisation to bid in principle, provided they are legally constituted. Data shows that BIDs are involved in almost half of the projects in England receiving funding for high streets, towns or city centres via the Future High Streets Fund, Heritage Action Zone and Towns Fund. Where community groups are not legally constituted, it may be possible for local authorities or BIDs who do have a legal status to work with them in partnership at the start of the process.
Finding the key partners
High street improvement will work best when all the key local partners are involved – so the first step is to find out who they are. This should include all relevant public agencies, landowners, private businesses, anchor institutions, traders, community groups and civil society organisations. Having a broad coalition of public and private partners who are committed to the principles is important. Ultimately, implementing a vision will often require a lot of money – so diverse sources of finance will also be needed.
Engaging with the local community
It is vital to engage broadly and deeply with the local community. How this works will depend on the local context, but in general:
- Allow enough time for discussions to move naturally through the community, rather than forcing deadlines that might suit businesses or the public sector but not local people.
- Tapping into existing local networks and organisations is a good starting point, but it might need to be accompanied by a more active outreach to find people who aren’t already engaged with a group.
- It’s important to assess the demographics of a place and seek to engage all groups in the community – but getting 100 per cent representation in a diverse and transient city like London can be difficult, so don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
- The people who use a local high street or town centre may not always be the people who live closest – especially in London where residents often have multiple high streets within a short travel time. They might feel a strong attachment to a high street because it is where they work, where their child goes to school, or where they worship. They are still important stakeholders and potential allies for change.
- Hold events at a range of different places and times, including mobile and outdoor discussions.
- Use image-led and creative techniques to show trade-offs and decisions – and to make it easy for people to share their views.
Deciding the content
In each place the content of a strategy will differ slightly, but it should be based around a broad framework that covers the main areas of concern without being too prescriptive about outputs. It should be a catalyst for change, with projects and actions identified – rather than a barrier to change which needs to be finished before things can happen. It should also include already-identified projects at different stages of their lifecycle.
As a general guide, strategies should:
- Build on the local assets and strengths of each place: aim to enhance their latent social and economic value.
- Identify local priorities and aspirations: make the strategy responsive to what local people see as necessary.
- Identify local weaknesses and threats: find out what needs to change.
- Be led and informed by local insight and data: draw on a wide range
- Plan for the long-term: think bigger than local government election
cycles or BID term lengths.
- Identify projects and actions: strategies should be tangible and action oriented.
Further guidance on developing a high street strategy can be found in both the GLA’s High Streets and Town Centres Adaptive Strategies document 63 and the Town Centre Toolkit from Scotland’s Town Partnership. 64 Information is also available via the High Streets Task Force. The GLA’s High Streets Challenge 65 is an excellent example of an approach to inclusive strategy development that could catalyse partnership working between all town centre stakeholders.
Managing the creation of a strategy will require some kind of group or body. Stakeholder mapping will have shown which organisations need to be involved. Once there is a broad coalition of local stakeholders who represent different town centre interests, their relationship will need to be defined in some way.
It could be as a group run by a local authority or a BID, or it could be a fairly informal group with a local authority or BID working as the fund holder. Alternatively, it could be set up as a new organisation – perhaps a charity or a community interest company. The most important thing is that community groups have a right to be involved and – crucially – that local authorities and other business or statutory partners are committed to making this work in practice. Simply stating that community groups will be involved is not enough to make it happen, particularly in the long term.
The best way to achieve this is for community groups to sit as core participants within this structure throughout, rather than just being engaged through the process – the Co-Place Nottingham example from Chapter 5 shows how important this is. It’s also vital to keep the eligibility requirements for participation open: local organisations are structured in different ways, so you don’t want to exclude based on a bureaucratic requirement.
Initial funding – local sources
Currently, there is a range of sources for local groups seeking to revitalise their high street. At the time of writing these include in-kind support from the High Streets Task Force, financial support from the High Streets Action Fund (through local authorities), Heritage Action Zones, the Towns Fund, and the Levelling Up Fund. Some areas will also have separate local or regional initiatives. Trusts and foundations also sometimes have funding available for local groups: the charitable arms of banks and national businesses may be particularly relevant here.
In places where they are partners, BIDs and local businesses may be able to provide funding for local groups – particularly where they can show that community involvement is likely to provide commercial benefit for the private sector by increasing footfall.
Local authorities are currently obliged to set aside 15 per cent of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) receipts to address the demands placed on their area by developers – known as Neighbourhood CIL. This could also be used for community-led high street renewal. In some cases the proportion goes up to 25 per cent. Local authorities could consider making this 25 per cent in all cases, with a presumption in favour of channelling it through local groups.
In the long term, some groups may be able to transition to local sources of funding, perhaps including a community levy. However, this is unlikely to work as a first step, as groups will need to prove themselves to the local community first.
We believe that greater (and more consistent) funding for local high street renewal is a good investment for both local and national government. This is set out in more detail below.
Ongoing governance and local funding
In time, local groups involved in high street renewal may decide to take a more fixed form – especially as they leave behind the urgent needs of post-pandemic
recovery and think more about longer-term place management. Through developing a strategy, local people’s capacity and confidence are likely to increase – and local partnerships should get stronger. Research has shown that when given the right support, community activities and initiatives often crystallise into something longer-lasting.
At that stage, incorporation of partnerships into something more formal might be necessary. This could take many different forms, but a CID model which relies on a levy or voluntary contribution to generate self-sustaining income may become appropriate at this point – once groups have shown the potential of what they can do. This could take place over a longer period as local support grows – with a gradual increase of contributions from local people and a tapering of contributions from others as additional revenue generating activities get started.
Policy recommendations for national and local government
Review the powers of local authorities to remedy delinquent ownership
The power of local authorities to Compulsorily Purchase is intended to facilitate regeneration, but it is a significant intervention and used infrequently. Due to time and capacity constraints, local authorities do not tend to use CPO powers on high streets. National government should review the process to facilitate more compulsory purchase of high street property in delinquent ownership, where it may be hindering renewal.
Short of compulsory purchase, alternative measures could be considered to bring vacant commercial property in delinquent ownership back into use. The power to “compulsorily lease” residential properties already exists and is known as an Empty Dwelling Management Order. Where a residential property has been empty for two years and the owners have refused to engage with the local authority, the power exists for the latter to take possession of the property and lease it to tenants, subject to particular conditions. Recognising that vacant commercial property and high street renewal are matters of strategic national importance, national government should look into extending these powers to commercial property. It could stipulate that the use of the property should be for community benefit, decided by the community.
Build on existing programmes to fund inclusive high street strategies
National government’s current offer for high street renewal is welcome, and shows that the state recognises the importance of community involvement in high streets as a mean of economic renewal. Making this support available to more high streets would increase the potential benefit.
Ideally, funding should come via grants to local government, rather than a competitive bidding process. Funding should be prioritised according to need, rather than the location of the best-written bids. Specifically, revenue funding should be provided at the early stages of a project to ensure that widespread and inclusive engagement can take place.
In London, the GLA should also consider how it can support local high street renewal using both its funding and its convening powers with businesses.
Ensure that the Community Ownership Fund is appropriately targeted
Although local authorities play an important role in enabling community ownership, more support is needed for this type of arrangement. The Community Ownership Fund is a very welcome development in this area. Providing funds for communities to purchase property is a key part of inclusive high street renewal.
The final details of the Fund are due to be released by June 2021. Yet there are certain factors important to its success that are yet to be defined. These include a requirement for match funding to be flexible, so as to allow greater support for deprived areas – and for assets which may not provide as great a yield in the short term. Another question is what the fund can be spent on: spaces which operate for community benefit can generate profit and revenue, but often they need seed funding to start. Ensuring that the Ownership Fund can be spent on revenue to develop sustainable business plans and build capacity will be another important determinant of its success.
Reconsider the extension of permitted development rights over commercial-to-residential property conversions
Many high streets have residential elements – most often flats above shops – and these work well in moderation, providing much-needed housing and increasing the market for local services. However, too much residential conversion can leave high streets without enough commercial and community space, reducing their viability in the medium to long term. Moreover, removing all planning controls on such conversions makes this a likely outcome.
There are already some exceptions to permitted development arrangements under “Article 4” exemptions for some central London boroughs. These prevent automatic commercial-to-residential conversion until 2022, when they can be renewed. National government should also allow other local authorities to request exemptions from permitted development on specific high streets, if the local authority can show that there is a risk to the survival of a local high street or community facility.
This report has discussed the scale of the challenges facing our high streets and town centres. Across the country, the centres of our neighbourhoods will have to be reconfigured to respond to a new reality and a different use of space.
Ensuring that new uses respond to the needs and wants of high street users will require a step change in the involvement of communities. Generating social and economic value from our high streets and town centres will require communities to be active agents as well as sources of information. This report has set out some practical steps and actions to make this a reality.
As the country looks to recover and rebuild from the impact of the pandemic, it’s clearer than ever that our connections to each other are also the source of our strength. The knowledge and insight in our communities is also the greatest source of wisdom where our own places are concerned – so let’s give these the role they deserve and put community partnerships at the very heart of high street renewal.