Vidhya Alakeson is the Chief Executive of Power to Change, an independent trust that supports community businesses across England.
In 2018, she was a member of the Government’s High Streets Expert Panel chaired by Sir John Timpson and she is currently a member of the Liverpool City Region Town Centres Commission.
Coronavirus has turbocharged long term trends on the high street. How we reimagine and reinvigorate our town centres will be one of the toughest tasks we face once the immediate crisis abates. It’s clear that retail alone will not drive recovery. How do we chart the way ahead? Here are five principles for how we can rebuild.
First, to rebuild, we must develop strong, shared place leadership and community organisations must be central to that. Not only are they deeply connected to local needs, heritage and identity, they are a rich source of solutions, from taking on empty properties as Nudge Community Builders does in Plymouth, to incubating microbusinesses as Make Hamilton Square does in Birkenhead.
Ultimately, shared place leadership doesn’t need new structures. But a new model – a community improvement district – could help bring the right parties to the table.
Second, ownership is one of the biggest barriers to curating our high streets. Much of it is fragmented and remote. Research we published last year with EG identified that high street properties owned by the public or social sectors had fewer voids. Today’s challenging times present a unique opportunity to drive forward community ownership in our town centres, making the best of falling values.
This is a tough call for cash strapped local authorities but low-cost loans or underwriting can make a real difference. The partnership between Great Yarmouth Council and the local preservation trust is a great example of how working together, community ownership can support a town centre.
Third, for a long time now, we have seen large national retailers as the anchors for our town centres. But that model is dying. Going forward, resilience will come from local businesses, both social purpose and not, that are rooted in, and committed to, place. Community-run shops across the country have seen increased demand since the beginning of this crisis and many have worked with local suppliers to continue to meet demand when large wholesalers cut back supply.
Local businesses like these will be able to command customer loyalty, particularly in a post-crisis world where staying close to home and working more from home may be a feature of how we live for some time. Local authorities should look to provide small grants to enable existing local businesses to adapt and new ones to start, as well as encouraging local people to shop local and social as lockdown eases.
Fourth, this crisis has highlighted the importance of digital connectivity and that will be central to our high streets as they reopen, much as it has been to our education and working lives in lockdown. Town centres that have a digital presence will do better and small businesses will need support to be able to develop their online presence.
Homebaked, a community-owned and run bakery in Liverpool, started selling its award-winning pies online when it could no longer open. Going forward, if it can grow this as a permanent part of its business, it can improve its long term viability and with it, that of its local area.
And number five: one of the silver linings of this crisis has been a positive impact on air pollution and climate. It is worrying that we are now being encouraged back into our cars.
We have a unique opportunity in the face of this crisis to build concern for climate into the way in which we design and use our town centres; to encourage walking, scooting and cycling, to increase pedestrianisation which can also help with social distancing if restaurants and bars are able to use more of their outside space, and to build in green space. Town centres must remain accessible to all but we should use this opportunity for long term benefit.
With the date for retail to reopen now in view, many will breathe a sigh of relief that they can get their businesses restarted. But we are only at the beginning of the challenges for our town centres. These five principles are intended to ensure that we don’t just get back to where we were but can transform our town centres for the future.