High streets – defined as “the primary business street of a city, town or village, especially in the UK”. Their main focus is on shopping and the retail sector. The pandemic left many centres, especially those in cities, degenerated, with many shops and small business premises lying vacant. However, as per the description of one authority, it has only accelerated the decline that has been increasing ever since online shopping and out-of-town retail became more comfortable and popular.
Regeneration or revival of the high streets is the answer – and research has shown that community ownership is essential for this. In London and the South East, where development is highly progressive, the Sittingbourne letting agents have also seen the power of shared ownership in bringing the high streets back to vitality.
Community ownership – the ownership of property by a community so that each member has a right to use a portion of it – has been described as the key to the problem for the following reasons:
Needs and Preferences of Local People:
According to Vidya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change, “It’s time to move towards a community-led high street where those who own and occupy the high street also have a long-term interest in its vitality.” https://www.newlocal.org.uk/articles/community-high-street/. Some outside investors have not had such long-term interest and shops have remained empty instead of rents being decreased to make them usable. In future, high streets need to combine all the participants such as local councils, community organisations, businesses, the NHS, universities etc to make them work together rather than as separate entities. The CIDs (Community Improvement Districts) collaborate in partnership to obtain available resources that individual property owners are unable to. They create solutions for the maximum impact on property values and improvement of the business environment.
Increase community and social purpose use by working with private owners:
There are many communities and social entrepreneurs waiting to enter the high streets as long as they can afford the quality space. At the same time, some long-term owners and those who own multiple properties are looking more at creating their social value as well as the new economy of town centres. Consumers prefer local and owners are realising that they may need to reduce rents to act as an incentive in bringing new tenants who will answer the demands of the public. It will also serve to prevent gentrification. To achieve this, local authorities and CIDs can help those willing to accept the “new way” by connecting such property owners with the business magnates. Research has shown that where there is community ownership, vacancies on high streets decrease as the spaces provide affordable and desired products and services for the community by meeting local demand rather than the traditional route.
Community and public ownership advantages:
Some privately owned properties have remained empty and dilapidated while high street properties in community ownership have much fewer vacancies. However, local people face hurdles of ready capital and access to money to take ownership. Getting the public and community owners to work in partnership rather than in competition will help. Long-term finance, in the form of a High Street BuyOut Fund, will help owners to be transferred to local communities to ensure that the properties survive and preserve their culture while high streets are regenerated. The government’s Community Ownership Fund of GBP 150 million over 4 years is helping. However, a High Streets BuyOut Fund for a larger amount (authorities are looking at GBP 350 million) enabling properties to be bought and, over time, transferred to communities will be a gigantic leap in helping to achieve the goal.
Local communities are worried that if high streets are allowed to decline, there will be a negative impact on the economy and employment opportunities. Buildings such as old town halls, libraries, museums etc create the identity of a place Community businesses are able to draw from the distinctive features to make them “destination places”, offering a diversity of services as well as retail. This, in turn, attracts people back to the high streets and increases footfall.
High streets are the heart of city and town centres, creating local identity and preserving cultural heritage. Research has revealed that locals do not want outside ownership and are eager for more community-owned properties. Communities care about their areas and understand the requirements of the local people. This will ensure that the social value is retained and distinctive services are provided to cater to the diversity (both age and culture) of the local population. Thus, the revitalisation of UK high streets definitely needs community ownership.