High streets should be transformed to benefit the community

Public policy should encourage a new sense of vibrancy into our high streets, reclaiming this public space for our community benefit, writes Elizabeth Cox.

Elizabeth Cox is head of connected economies at the new economics foundation (nef)

The response to this week’s release of vacancy rates was greeted by doomsayers ‘experts’ as the end of local high streets which can no longer resist the inevitability of changed consumer spending habits – the rise of internet shopping and the attraction of big brand stores which now locate themselves in shiny out of town malls rather than our local high streets – with the current economic climate only serving to quicken this inevitable death.

But this is not the whole story; consumers are being conditioned into different purchasing behaviour, but we have also made planning and development policy decisions which have encouraged the rise of out of town shopping developments, and increased the floor space of supermarkets, fuelling their creeping dominance in what were the traditional high street sectors – tobaccos/ newsagents, off-licenses, bakers, clothes and now white goods and electricals.

These out of town malls and supermarkets suck the life out of our local economies, and in so doing erode our public life by a breaking down connections, and opportunities to make connections within our communities.

Yet our high streets could become centres of economic and social revival – a place where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities.

Rather than wringing our hands in despair, we can take action and use these empty properties to transform our high streets into places where people want to spend time, rather than just their money. We can create a rich mix of activities and shops – interesting, basic and independent; community meeting places; high street hubs to support sustainable living; studios where art can flourish and where children can play.

What local government and other public institutions can do

• Establish High Street Hubs in key vacant shops to accommodate activities that help develop local economic sustainability. These could range from local currency development (like Brixton £) to local food distribution and tool share/exchange schemes. n.b. These are NOT general ‘community centres’;

• Sign up to the Sustainable Communities Act;

• Make residents an equal partner in your Master Planning processes;

• Design well-being, distinctiveness and sustainability indicators into your Master Planning processes;

• Pursue the principles of Shared Space in your public space development; and

• Use the extension of discretionary business rate relief powers (included as part of the Localism Bill) to support new low carbon businesses moving on to the high street and to existing small and medium independent businesses who commit to reduce their carbon use.

What national government can do

• Create an Empty Dwellings Management Order instrument for Local Authorities to apply to empty builds to bring them back into active use for public benefit;

• Ensure the Localism Bill promotes sustainable high streets and gives local people real power over their high streets to determine if a new development actively supports distinctiveness, diversity and sustainability of their local economy. Learn from places which are actively supporting their high streets, such as the California city of San Diego which recently enacted a local low to help high streets to fight back.

(San Diego enacted, in 2007 and 2010, two separate ordinances that require the city to review the economic and community impact of large-scale retail development proposals before deciding whether to approve them.);

• Develop a land registry of commercial property so we can understand who owns our town centres. Too often property languishes on the books of investment portfolios instead of being put to good use locally; and

• Establish a Local Competition Ombudsman as recommended by the Competition Commission which will reign in the power of the big four grocery chains.

We can use public policy to encourage a new sense of vibrancy into our high streets; we can reclaim this public space for our community benefit.

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