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Guest Blog: Stakeholder and Community Collaboration Vital to the High Street

By Jeremy Wakeham, CEO of the business division at Withers

It is safe to say that some local high streets have experienced a revival in the last year. However, many are concerned that a return to normality after lockdown will be accompanied by a return to how things used to be – less local footfall and a more fractured community.

This is not an unrealistic situation as before COVID-19 many local high streets had been viewed as a forgotten wasteland, generating less and less money with each passing year as consumers opted for out-of-town, city centre, and online shopping instead. Initiatives have previously been introduced that aimed to energise these areas, but often without success.

Lockdown did however bring with it a new lease of life for some local high streets, as everyone was forced to live and buy locally for at least half of 2020 and into 2021. Work and entertainment in the city ceased and we all began looking closer to home for necessities but also for little luxuries helping us get through the hardships that came along with the pandemic.

But Alanna Johnson, associate at Withers told me that as people have looked closer to home for their needs, they may also have seen gaps in the services provided on their high street.

Many experts believe that fundamentally our village and town centres now need to evolve to keep people interested, and part of this means having more than just shops and essential amenities. They also need to have places for people to work, socialise, be entertained, and ultimately to engage with other members of the community – and to attract external visitors they need to celebrate the unique history, heritage, and culture of the local area.

Clare Bailey, Founder of The Retail Champion told us, during research for our new high streets report,  that the fundamental role of these spaces is to provide for the needs and wants of the local community. Claire acknowledges that communities and catchments have changed over the years, but insists that the simple fact still remains that a high street needs to service the needs of the community first and foremost. Coming out of the pandemic she feels it is inevitable that some of these needs will have changed; therefore, high streets must adapt, and they can do that most effectively with proactive support from place managers (local authorities, landowners, BIDs etc), and through collaboration between all the businesses and organisations that operate within those high streets.

But adapting is no small ask; the local high street has a lot to contend with and a lot of competition. Unfortunately, the largest challenge for many is with the landlords who own the buildings. In some cases, the landlords have never visited the buildings they own and for that reason, many fall into disrepair. Change is hard to achieve if you cannot engage key stakeholders directly. Many believe that absentee landlords must take a greater interest in the areas they’re invested in, and ultimately work with the community and local authorities directly to determine what change is needed and how that can happen.

We also spoke to Graham Soult, Retail Consultant and member of the High Street Task Force, who said that if we want people to embrace and use and support local high streets ongoing then this old paradigm landlords who live miles away from their commercial properties seems very outdated. He believes that it’s not just about looking at the asset in terms of the income you can generate, it’s about thinking how to create something good. If you’re a landlord that is happy to take more of a risk, then independents can be a great fit. He, like many others would like to see more ambitious and radical thinking from landlords.

Community ownership is considered a powerful way to address this as it ensures that local people have a say in their local businesses, how they’re run and that they meet the ongoing needs and priorities of the area.

There are a number of established models for community ownership which have been successful for pubs, cafes and retail. Community Land Trusts are amongst the most popular, and can take a number of forms (including limited companies, Community Interest Companies and Community Benefit Societies), but all are not-for-profit, so any proceeds they generate are channelled back into the community. It’s advisable to be clear on the ultimate purpose of the project when deciding how to set it up.

This idea of locals taking back buildings that have been empty for years and turning them into something that they love is also picking up pace. More communities are feeling empowered to push back against their councils to ensure that the amenities on the high street make sense for the people who live there.

This concept has really taken off in Dumfries, Scotland, with the introduction of Midsteeple Quarter, a Community Benefit Society that has been set up and is run by the people of Dumfries. They have one aim: to reshape their town centre into something that is designed to benefit the local community. One of the core principles is to encourage community ownership and control that is shared amongst everyone. Their most recent project involves taking underused high street properties and refurbishing them into diverse contemporary living, socialising, working, and learning spaces.

Scott Mackay, Midsteeple Quarter Manager told us that at the beginning of the process they felt the local authority completely lacked vision, that it was underpinned by austerity and that there just wasn’t the capacity to come up with the right vision so Dumfries floundered for years. They’ve since given Scott and his team local funding, as well as support in applying for various regeneration funds that the Scottish government has established. As the Midsteeple Quarter team has grown they’ve brought onboard more experts and people with a property development background, and are now working in an increasingly collaborative and professional way.

Scott believes that COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the high street. Now it’s been generally recognised that a community group can transform and create change on a local high street, government is more likely to create a funding model. Hopefully, this will make it easier for other towns wanting to do something similar – Scott feels like the team at Midsteeple Quarter have created a path so that others will hopefully find it easier to follow in their footsteps.

Scott advised that for anyone wanting to try this, it’s important to try and form a consensus with local groups right at the very start. Bring together local businesses with the community to discuss the issues that the high street faces and build some consensus to lobby the local council and local stakeholders to work with you and instigate change.

For now, the effects of COVID-19 will continue to influence the state of the local high street. Many of us will remember how our local greengrocer, butcher and baker were there for us at a time when we needed them most. To keep local amenities alive, we mustn’t forget that our high streets rely on every single one of our purchases to stay trading.

The real test will come once COVID-19 is more of a memory and we (to some extent) go back to how our lives were pre-pandemic. One thing is certain however, we must continue to support and fight for our local high streets if they are to stand a chance of not just surviving but thriving in the future.