Community Town Centres

This report from the Centre for London explores how communities can play a greater role in the shaping of high streets and town centres by examining the case for new governance models, such as Community Improvement Districts, before providing a set of policy recommendations for both national and local government to consider.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This report begins with a reflection on the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on communities, including how the impact of lockdown has reinforced the importance of our local places. Whilst major city centres have seen both footfall and spending decline, high streets that serve more local catchment areas have seen an increase in spending, which powerfully demonstrates the importance of our local communities.

As communities are the principal users of high streets, the report argues that there is a compelling case for them to have greater influence, in order to ensure that high streets serve the needs and wants of a place. The authors state that significant policy changes will be required to give communities a more active role in the stewardship of their high street, in order to make them the beating hearts of social, economic, civic and cultural life in our neighbourhoods once again.

In the first chapter, which looks at how we arrived at this point, the Centre for London recounts the modern history of town centre change, from the growth of out-of-town retail parks since the 1980s to the more recent growth in online shopping. Whilst a number of these trends have accelerated as a result of the coronavirus, including online shopping which, as of January 2021, stands at 36% of all retail spending in the UK, the report notes that the pandemic has not caused wholly new problems but instead exposed existing vulnerabilities that were already facing our high streets.

When considering what to do next, the report argues that the the answer involves looking at how our town centres are currently governed and managed. Whilst the introduction of new town centre governance models, such as Business Improvement Districts, have had successes, the report argues that more could (and should) be done to fit communities into these institutional arrangements. One such idea to achieve this goal is the establishment of ‘Community Improvement Districts’, a concept which has been much discussed as a way to give communities a proper say when it comes to determining the future of their place.

How a ‘Community Improvement District’ (CID) might be formed and operated is explored within a chapter on high street governance, which highlights a potential suite of options for its design that had previously been suggested by Power to Change, the charitable trust that specialises in supporting Community Businesses in England. These options range from a CID operating as a resident-led organisation, funded by a levy on local residents, through to a CID being conceptualised as a BID which has more of a community focus. However, the report states that the principles of community involvement in high street renewal may actually be more important than whatever governance structure is ultimately used.

The next chapter looks beyond governance structures to examine other crucial conditions that must be satisfied if community engagement is to be successful. It stresses that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not apply when thinking about place partnerships and that the distinct makeup of each place needs to be recognised in order to create a truly effective mechanism for community influence. This, the report states, is is genuine localism, and will result in each partnership looking slightly different.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations and guidance for better integrating communities in the development of high streets and town centres. The starting point for this work, the report states, is the creation of a shared vision and strategy for a place, which involves collaborating with local key partners, including the local community. In deciding the content for this vision, the report references the work of the High Streets Task Force, with an emphasis on the “4 R’s of renewal” - reinventing, repositioning, rebranding and restructuring - to provide a clear rationale for approaching town centre change and development.

A set of policy recommendations for both national and local government are also explored in the final chapter which include; improving the powers of local authorities to use Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) to acquire strategic units on the high street which may be hindering renewal, to build on existing programmes to fund inclusive high street strategies which are prioritised according to need, to ensure that the Community Ownership Fund is targeted to allow greater support for deprived areas and, finally, to reconsider the extension of permitted development rights over commercial-to-residential property conversions which could reduce the viability of high streets to properly function in the medium to long term.