Advice: Promoting community uses on the high street

Councils need to use their land ownership and planning powers to bring community uses to the high street, and work with commercial property owners, finds Ben Kochan.

Units in good locations on the high street are ideal for community uses, like this one in Kettering (PIC Meanwhile Foundation)
Units in good locations on the high street are ideal for community uses, like this one in Kettering (PIC Meanwhile Foundation)

With many large retailers going out of business or closing stores in town centres, the government and others are hoping that community uses will help fill the gap. "Libraries, health centres alongside community projects and social enterprises could help to attract people into the town centre," says Cat Mitton, director of the Institute of Place Management (IPM). With much of the property in town centres in the hands of private investors, councils need to be prepared to use their planning powers, the limited amount of land in their ownership and persuasion to secure the mix of social and commercial uses that high streets need, she explains.

Here are three points to consider when promoting community uses on the high street.

1. Work with property owners and local communities

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) Open Doors pilot project is seeking to demonstrate how communities can bring new life to town centres. "We are reaching out to both the property owners and community organisations," says Jessica Tsang, project director at the Meanwhile Foundation, a community interest company that is developing the project for MHCLG. Five shops have been identified in different towns for use by the community organisations, which were put forward by their owners. "Many property owners offered empty units, but we wanted to be sure that they were accessible and in a safe part of the town centre," she explains.

They also had to be suitable for community use or easily adapted. "The units have been simply adapted and have attracted a range of community activities," says Tsang. The unit on the high street of Kettering, in Northamptonshire, was last occupied in 2014, has good visibility and footfall and is within walking distance of the train station and comes with parking, she explains. The new uses range from art therapy sessions to drop-in sessions for the homeless.

The owners may be prepared to hand over their properties to community organisations but many buildings are likely to need considerable work before they can use them, says Gavin Richards, operations manager at the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF). Local authorities or other funders need to be prepared to support them, he says. He points to the Havens department store in Southend, which is being reused as a centre for Age Concern. The store closed about a year ago and the family owners handed the lower floors over to the charity for activities to support older people, while it runs an internet based retail business from the top floor. The AHF has a £15 million fund to support the reuse of historic buildings in the high street for social enterprises and charities, and is helping with the conversion of the Havens department store. "The new community projects need to reuse prominent buildings in the town centre and should be part of a wider initiative to improve the town centre," says Richards.

Councils need to identify failing retailers in their town centres and work with them before the shops actually close, suggests Andrew O’ Brien, external affairs director at the Social Enterprise Foundation, a network of social enterprises in the UK. "By bringing in social enterprises and community uses early on, a new future for the units could be identified to avoid them standing empty for a long time," he adds. "There are a lot of social enterprises looking for space."

2. Use land ownership

Many councils are buying shopping centres as long term investments, points out Will Brett. He is an independent consultant and co-author of a recent report advocating putting communities in charge of their own town centres for Power to Change, an independent trust that supports community businesses in England. "Some of the shopping centres have empty units, which could be made available for community projects and social enterprises," he says. 

Brett points to the empty unit taken over as part of the MHCLG’s Open Doors programme in the Bradford City Council owned Oastler shopping centre. "The council has plans to redevelop the centre, but at the moment an empty unit is being used by an arts organisation for community activities ," he says.

3. Use planning powers

Some councils are identifying sites in their local plans for community uses in their town centres, says IPM’s Mitton. She points to Elmbridge Borough Council’s draft local plan, which identifies a site in Weybridge town centre, in Surrey, for a GP’s surgery, library and police station.

"It is helpful that the health authority owns the site," she says. "But the different public agencies will have to work together to realise this project."

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