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Local businesses hold the key to transforming the high street

Community-led organisations could be the future of economic growth and regeneration.

By Tim Davies-Pugh

If you asked somebody to explain what the economy is to you, they might hesitate before gesturing to – well – everything around them. In a way they would be right. The national economy is a concept that is hard to grasp. It is something that we all experience and partake in every day and yet remains intangible in many ways. But this begins to change as the scale becomes more relevant to people’s lives, from the national to the regional, to the local and then the community level. It is at the community level where the community businesses that Power to Change works with operate and where people experience the economy in real terms.

Power to Change’s new approach is based on helping to create the conditions for community businesses to thrive by influencing change from all levels of government as well as funders and investors. We have learnt from eight years of large-scale funding and we will continue to learn as we test what works into the future. This will demonstrate that strong local economies, which community businesses are a part of, can form the bedrock of a stronger and fairer national economy.

There has been a shift in the way the two main political parties view the economy. Major figures in the Conservative and Labour Party – such as Michael Gove and Rachel Reeves – have articulated a reassessment of globalisation that focuses on the security of supply chains and economic resilience. It is a far cry from the days when to question globalisation was to question whether autumn should follow summer. This should be seen alongside a strong sense from the public that they want decisions to be made closer to them – polling for Power to Change shows that 75 per cent feel they have little or no say over the decisions that affect their local area.

When I visit community businesses this feels more palpable than any polling does, nowhere more so than on the high street. The high street is a lens through which people judge how well things are going in their local area; vacancies on the high street can feed into a wider sense of decline. Often people feel they have little control over this. This is where community businesses can step in.

Accountable to and run by local people, community businesses are at the forefront of turning around high streets across England. I have seen this for myself in places across the country, like Sunderland in the North East and Hastings on the South coast.  

These are two quite different places with their own challenges. In Sunderland, Back on the Map – a local community business and housing charity – took part in Power to Change’s community improvement district pilots. Community improvement districts take a community-led approach to regenerating high streets and town centres. Through taking this approach, Back on the Map has begun negotiating with property owners to bring units back into use – tackling the blight of vacancy on Villette Road, the local high street.

In Hastings, the Hastings Commons area is being developed by White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures, a locally-rooted community developer that grew out of a campaign to save Hastings Pier. Motivated by the idea of self-renovating neighbourhoods, they have been able to purchase and renovate totemic local buildings like Rock House and the Observer Building.

Taken together, these two examples demonstrate community-led innovation and provide a glimpse into what our economy could look like in the future. The question is what do we need to get there?

We think that community businesses need the powers, resources, and backing that will create the conditions for them to the thrive. On the high street this means introducing a Community Right to Buy so that communities have a right of first refusal on assets of community value and long-term vacant high street property. It means expanding the Community Ownership Fund, so that appropriate funding is available for communities to purchase the assets that matter to them. It means offering business rates relief of 75 per cent to community businesses, as already applies to hospitality and retail businesses, to incentivise their operation on the high street.

As both the main parties begin to craft a new political economy for our times, they need not only look to the Biden administration in the United States for inspiration for what this might look like. The future may well be right under their noses, in places like Hastings and Sunderland. Places where community businesses are leading the regeneration of local high streets, taking the voice of the community and turning it into action. Imagine what more could be done in so many places, if community businesses are given the powers, resources and backing they need to thrive.