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Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets
Here’s a quandary for you. Most of us say that we care about our local high streets, that their impoverishment and decline bothers and depresses us, that they are the hearts of our neighbourhoods. And yet still we shop elsewhere. And too many high streets remain, if not in a spiral of decline, then at least in a half life of empty shops and fitful crowds. What is going on? Does it matter?
The real mistake we’ve made is to think of high streets as just a place to shop. In fact, they have normally been so much more. For centuries town centres and high streets have been the places where people came to buy, to sell, to go to the pub, the church, or the theatre, or just to meet and spend time with other people. The precise mix of these functions has naturally varied over time and place: the retail-dominated high street we now think of as traditional is really a mid-twentieth century evolution from the much more mixed economy that had predominated before.
High streets are the natural centres of our economic, social, and community life. They are now going through a period of crisis and change, but this is not new and terminal decline is not inevitable. High streets have reinvented themselves before and can do so again. To enable this we need to free up regulatory red tape and overcome the sclerotic practices that stop new, prosperity-generating activity from taking root and flourishing once more.
Today, battered by decades of out-of-town shopping centre developments, the rise of internet retail, and more recently the covid pandemic, the purely retail-led version of the high street is kaput. Empty properties are common: in some places, they are even the dominant form of land use. Sooner or later many of these become derelict, blighting their surroundings and hastening the cycle of decline.
Recent government and civil society initiatives have struggled to counter these trends, with, at best, mixed results. But through the ups and downs of economic fortune and the shifts of policy and politics, the glimmerings of a rejuvenated high street are increasingly visible. It can be seen in the heritage-led regeneration of parts of Darlington, Great Yarmouth, and Coventry town centres. And in the inspiring community business clusters emerging in Dumfries and Hastings. Like the high street itself, these examples are varied, flexible and evolving, but the two key drivers of their success are the diversification of commercial and civic activities, and an enhanced role for local community organisations in igniting and stewarding revival. They are rediscovering their little platoons.
Recent planning reforms have started to unlock market forces and support this incipient revival. New Permitted Development Rights are enabling unwanted shops to become desperately needed homes, bringing people and life back to places that had become empty outside of shopping hours. But the second part of the recipe for success – the empowerment of local communities to buy into the revival of their high streets – needs equivalent policy support to realise its potential. This is what the Create Streets Foundation’s latest report, Re-creating the platoons of place, addresses.
Way back in 2010 the newly elected Coalition government consulted on a proposal from the Conservative Manifesto for a new ‘community right to buy’ that would enable local communities in England to protect community assets by giving them the chance to buy them. Since 2003 Scottish communities have had just such a right to acquire assets of community value at a fair market value should they come up for sale. But twelve years later this remains unfinished business in England.
In 2011 the Coalition government decided that the “disadvantages outweigh the potential to provide additional benefits to communities” and instead created the Right to Bid. This far weaker power gives community organisations the right to register property as ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACVs) and then to apply for a six-month moratorium on any sale in which to put together a bid to buy the property. This idea has proved popular, with over 4,000 properties registered as ACVs since. Yet the owner is still at liberty to reject the offer, and as a result only around 1.5 per cent of properties registered as AVCs have actually been acquired by local communities. Various other powers are similarly ineffective. Responding to an earlier period of high street decline the Conservative government of 1990 gave local authorities the power to issue Section 215 notices requiring property owners to address dereliction, but this power is narrowly drawn and largely unused.
The traditional high street now faces a new era of challenge and change. Government should finally complete on the promises of 1990 and 2010 and empower local community organisations to take ownership of vacant and derelict high street property, so that they can bring them back into whatever use their local communities and economies need. Our report maps out a route for achieving this through modest reforms to existing regulations and amendments to legislation currently before Parliament, and through proactive use of existing powers by local authorities.
Most of the regulatory changes we propose are small, technical improvements to the ACV and Section 2015 rules: the biggest change is that the ‘right to bid’ should be enhanced to give communities first refusal right to buy registered ACVs that come up for sale – at a fair market price – in line with the original government proposal of 2010.
The Prime Minister pledged to turn around declining high streets during his party leadership campaign, saying:
“I understand the vital role high streets play in communities. I don’t just want them to survive; I want them to thrive…I want to slash the number of empty shops by 2025 and make sure they are turned into thriving local assets, supporting skills, businesses, economies and creating jobs.”
Michael Gove is equally committed, likening empty high street premises to “missing teeth in the smile of an old friend.” With the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill going through Parliament they now have a golden opportunity to stop the rot and enable local communities to lead the revival of their high streets so they can be centres of community life once again.