Power to Change Calls for Communities to Take Back the High Street

A new report from Power to Change (PTC) has outlined how community ownership can help reduce the growing number of shop vacancies on our high streets and revitalise local economies.

The Take Back the High Street report describes how the success of large, corporate retails centres such as Castle Court or Victoria Square in the centre of Belfast, is routinely used as a measure of economic health in towns and cities. In reality, such outlets provide opportunities for high-end retail, very often with foreign investment, which suffocates local enterprise. It is argued that retail at this scale should not be allowed to dominate the high street because it breeds hyperconsumerism at the expense of creativity, human interaction and genuine diversity of goods and services.

As vacancies continue to rise, big retail closures can have serious repercussions; not just in terms of the socio-economic fallout of mass job losses, but also in the loss of a surrogate community anchor, as large retailers often become, particularly in small towns. A shift is needed then, from a situation in which communities are one of many stakeholders in town centres to one in which they become the priority stakeholder, and possibly even the preferred landlord.

Community enterprise can spark economic regeneration by using local skills and talents and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit; in deprived areas it can revitalise areas that attract little interest from the developers and commercial businesses. Recent Power to Change research from 6,300 community enterprises in Great Britain indicates that:

  • £220m was contributed to the UK GVA 
  • half of all money spent in community enterprises stayed in the local economy
  • three quarters are in good financial condition
  • there is a high survival rate (94%)
  • community pubs have a 100% survival rate, as compared with 14 pubs closing in the wider industry in each week of 2018

PTC is calling for a new stronger Community Right to Buy; one that builds upon the, arguably ineffective, provisions that already exist within the Localism Act (2011). This would, it says, help to change the perception of community organisations as being merely the agents of social regeneration, to one in which they are also economic regeneration actors. The proposed extension of the community right to buy would include:

  • giving “specially-defined communities with a strong track record a priority right to buy
  • a generous window of opportunity to raise funds
  • independent valuation of assets
  • the right to force a sale in the case of dereliction and/or neglect contributing to the decline of a neighbourhood
  • greater access to capital for feasability work, purchases and revenue costs
  • greater collaboration between local businesses and community organisations and also between local authorities and communities.

In the absence of any community rights legislation here in NI, we at DTNI have been leading the discussion of these and other similar proposals with political representatives, local authorities and the third sector. We aim to investigate the legislative underpinning that supports the practice of community development trusts in Scotland and England, just as has been described above.

To keep informed of community rights developments follow us on Twitter @devtrustni, and at the campaign page @NICommRights and use the hashtag #CRACT