Over the last few years, we have seen a trend over the Christmas period for high street retailers to pin their hopes on a good sales period in the lead-up to the big event, only for those hopes to be dashed come financial reporting time in the new year.
This year, there is even more on the line as the pandemic, lockdowns and the relentless rise of online shopping has created the most challenging circumstances the high street has ever seen. We have already seen big chain retail names finally succumbing to its decade long decline, which has been accelerated by COVID-19. It is now a case of wondering who is next.
So, what sort of high street are we going to be dealing with next Christmas? If we want to avoid rows of boarded up shops, we need to act, and that action needs to come from, and be focused at, a local level. To truly enable places to ‘build back better’ central and local government must support communities by giving local people a say over these spaces.
The power of community businesses
Community businesses, those run by and for the community themselves, provide a tremendous opportunity to create vibrant and resilient high streets and communities – they are locally-rooted and trusted, responding to specific community needs and delivering the services that local people want. They are embedded into their local area and won’t run away when economic conditions get tough, as many have experienced during the pandemic. They run based on social purpose – their profit benefits local people rather than remote shareholders.
Whether it’s the medium-term challenge of how we rebuild our town centres, or today’s intense focus on the jobs crisis, community businesses have a central role to play in moving people furthest from the labour market back into work. A recent report by London School of Economics (LSE), in association with Power to Change, shows that community businesses can be important drivers of economic prosperity. Whilst they can’t expect to match the volume of jobs on offer from high street names, they can help to improve job prospects for local people. Community businesses serve as a ‘destination place’, increasing footfall to the high street and so bringing people in to use other local businesses. They increase the diversity of high-street users by bringing in other groups who would not otherwise have felt comfortable or been attracted to the high street, and they build links with other local businesses through voucher programmes and incubator schemes. Importantly, they provide training and employment opportunities for local people.
Power to Change’s new report Employment and Skills – the role of community business, written by the University of Plymouth shows that 18% of community business employees were out of work before starting their roles. Individuals that struggle to find work in mainstream businesses are often supported by community business through employment, training or volunteering opportunities, demonstrating the power of community businesses in helping those that are likely to be hard hit by recent lockdowns and a shrinking job market. If we want high streets and local people to thrive and drive economic investment, community businesses must have a part to play.
When you give local people real power, which means access to real money, extraordinary things can happen — like Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester (pictured). Built for the community in 1878, by 2010 it had closed and was falling into disrepair. In 2015 local people came together to take it over and have painstakingly restored it into a self-financing beacon that lifts the whole area. It’s not only about jobs and the local economy, it’s about local pride.
How can we revitalise the high street?
Over 95% of council leaders said that the community response to the pandemic has been significant to their COVID-19 response. As we now turn to the potential of recovery, local and combined authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships must build on this community response by incorporating community businesses in their strategic decision making around the economic recovery.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak can support local and combined authorities by channelling the £2bn in returned business rate relief into a dedicated new fund to support struggling small, independent and community businesses. That would allow local authorities to work in partnership with community businesses to reinvent high streets as civic spaces fit for the 21st century. Local authorities and communities need to have more autonomy and control in order to regenerate their high streets to be economic, social and cultural hubs they once were – and can be again.
Vidhya Alakeson is chief executive of Power to Change