Community-led development: a roadmap for asset ownership

Author CLES

This report from CLES seeks to provide a roadmap towards a more supportive, less fragmented framework for community asset transfer and recommends reforms to planning and finance structures.

Date added 3 November 2021
Last updated 3 November 2021

This report from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) critically analyses the dynamics in local land development markets and explores alternative models of development that can build greater community wealth. It finds that community-led approaches to workspace, housing and high streets can support a levelling up of our places and that there is an opportunity to develop the practice of community asset transfer to support the growth of these models.

The first chapter examines the relationship between wealth and land and property markets in the UK, taking a historical perspective before examining the dynamics of property wealth in the present day and the impact of Covid-19. Following this, the report explores alternative models of development, providing a history as well as case studies of practice from the UK and beyond, across the themes of workspace, homes and high streets.

The section on high streets begins with an overview of their history, exploring the various crises that they have faced over the years. The first crisis, the report states, took place in the 1960s and 70s with the arrival of supermarkets, which all but wiped-out the independent grocery sector. In 1950 there were 120,000 independent butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers in England. Today there are just 30,000 and the supermarkets have taken an astonishing 97% of grocery sales.

The second crisis took place in the 1990s when a relaxation of planning policy led to the expansion of out-of-town retailing, leading to the decline of traditional high streets.  In response to this, a “town centre first” approach was introduced including a sequential test, meaning that an out-of-town site could not be developed for retail if a suitable site existed within or nearer to the centre. This, the report states, worked reasonably well as 85% of planning development in 2001 was in town centres, compared to 86% of new retail being out-of-town in 1994.  

The third crisis followed the 2008 financial crash, after which consumer confidence collapsed and remained negative for five years. Between 2009 and 2011, 10,000 shop units closed in UK town centres and vacancy rates more than doubled, rising from 7% in 2008 to a peak of 16.3% in 2012. This third crisis was then magnified by the 2011 riots, which prompted the Prime Minister David Cameron to announce a review of the state of England’s high streets, fronted by the retail guru and TV presenter Mary Portas.

Whilst there have been a series of policy responses to these crises, including the High Streets Task Force which, more recently, have accepted that high streets need to become more mixed use with less of a reliance on retail, the report notes that there needs to be a greater policy focus on community ownership of high streets. Research has found that community-owned spaces contribute £220m to the UK economy, and 56p of every £1 they spend stays in the local economy.

Despite the significant economic benefits that community ownership can bring to high streets, analysis by Power to Change has found that, under the current regime of registering assets of community value, only 15 out of every 1,000 end up in community ownership. This prompts the report to recommend that the current ‘Right to Bid’ is strengthened into a ‘Right to Buy’ for communities, which would give “specifically defined communities with a strong track record and a solid business case priority rights to buy land in which they have registered an interest, and a generous window of opportunity to raise the funds necessary to meet the price as determined by an independent valuation.”[1]

Other reforms the report recommends for improving the rate of community ownership include making local authorities produce a register of assets for community use, using planning to protect and promote community uses of land, and establish a nationally recognised community asset transfer qualification for community groups and local authority officers/planners, supported by professional bodies such as the RTPI/RICS, which would provide a form of quality assurance to help address the perception of risk.


[1] Brett and Alakeson. (2019). Take Back the High Street Putting communities in charge of their own town centres