The crisis on our high streets is well documented. The combination of the impact of out-of-town shopping centres, online retail, and latterly the pandemic means that fundamental shifts have taken place. And now we have the cost of living rises to contend with. The old assumptions about the value of commercial retail property, the patterns of shopping behaviour, and high street brands always being there have been massively disrupted.
In that context, the work of Power to Change and their ‘take back the High Street’ campaign is really welcome. Working with our friends (and clients) Resonance, Power to Change has scoped out the impact of a High Street Buyout Fund, to enable the acquisition of high street assets quickly when they are being disposed of. This would allow communities time to mobilise and organise before taking ownership; there are some great examples of what can be achieved out there already, not least in Hastings.
We support the Buyout Fund proposals, but it is the other recommendations in the report that caught my eye particularly. Power to Change advocate the extension of the Community Right to Bid in the Localism Act (the first element of which is the register of Assets of Community Value) to become a Right to Buy. Communities would have the first refusal on assets of community value that came up for sale, but also on long term empty high street properties.
Through the work of Meanwhile Space and the Meanwhile Foundation (transparency note - I am a trustee), we have already seen that short term community use of empty spaces can have a massive positive benefit. But turning that into a right to acquire those properties could be transformative.
The right to bid could be so much more; there were arguments won and lost as the Localism Act was debated through Parliament in the early years of the coalition government, and what had been envisaged as a right to buy was watered down. But no one could deny that since then the landscape has fundamentally altered. Decisive intervention is needed so that more high streets do not slip into long term decline. Community ownership and investment can make the difference. It is time to enable that to happen.
THE UK’S HIGH STREETS, THE BEATING HEARTS OF OUR COMMUNITIES, HAVE REACHED A CRITICAL TIPPING POINT.