Matt Vickers is Conservative MP for Stockton South and Chair of the APPG on the Future of Retail
While Westminster has been firmly focused on the race to decide our next prime minister, many Conservative MPs – including myself – have been busy working hard in our constituencies. It is here that we get to hear what really matters to voters in the communities in which they live. Time and time again, people bring up the same thing: their local high street.
It is no secret that our high streets are struggling. We have seen the growth of out-of-town retail and online shopping, while the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have only made matters worse. In all parts of the UK, shuttered shops are a feature of our high streets. Data from the Local Data Company shows one in 20 high street units have sat empty for more than 3 years. This is particularly acute in the places where voters put their trust in the Conservatives in 2019 and that we need to win at the next election. My neck of the woods, the North East, is the region with the highest percentage of persistently vacant high streets properties in Britain.
High streets are central to people’s pride in place; that is why revitalising our high streets is a vital piece of the levelling up puzzle. When people think about levelling up they think about their local area, in particular their high street – 69 per cent of people worry about the decline of their high street and the effect on civic pride. We cannot, as a party and as a country, sit back and let this continue.
On a recent trip to Dumfries in Scotland, I saw part of the solution. I visited the brilliant Midsteeple Quarter along with business and community leaders and the local council, to look at how community ownership of assets can breathe new life into the high street. The benefits were clear walking through the town centre. Looking to my right I saw the sad sight of a now empty Burtons store, dating back to 1934. To my left, stood the vibrant fronts of the community-owned spaces that Midsteeple Quarter has taken control of to revitalise the high street.
We met in a meeting room above a bustling arts and crafts shop and spent some time in an impressive food photography studio – all in the same building owned by the local community. Clearly this isn’t about the death of retail – the mixed-use space where we held our meeting serves as a perfect example of how community-owned assets serve as ‘destination spaces’ that can drive footfall to other local businesses and boost retail.
These community-owned spaces also contribute more to the local economy, with 56p of every £1 they spend staying local, compared to just 40p for large private sector firms. Community-owned spaces can support new or emerging forms of economic activity, such as hybrid commercial and social business.
I was glad to see the government take some important steps to address high street decline in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which plans to introduce high street rental auctions for buildings that are vacant for longer than 12 months. But there is room for Conservatives to go further to demonstrate a commitment to revitalising our high streets and delivering on levelling up. One way we could do this is by establishing a High Street Buyout Fund that can compete with distant owners with little interest in the place, to purchase high street buildings on behalf of local communities and give them time to raise the capital to purchase it themselves.
Revitalising our high streets should be top of the pile on the list of issues that our next prime minister must deliver on, whoever they may be. Boosting community ownership on the high street is an innovative and cost-effective way of doing that. The public put their faith in us to level up, now is the time for us to deliver. We may not be forgiven if we do not.