The Greater London Authority launched a new adaptive strategy for London’s high streets. As the report recognises, the challenges facing high streets across the UK are complex and require a mix of responses from investment to building new partnerships and strategies for high streets.
However, it is particularly interesting to see the call for an increased focus on experimentation and prototyping of new solutions to challenges facing the high street. There is an interest in testing new ownership and investment models for high street projects, such as cooperative investment funds or community shares.
While community ownership isn’t a panacea to all challenges facing the high street, enabling the community to invest in and govern local places and assets, can provide an alternative and cheaper route to finance, and perhaps more importantly, help better engage the community in deciding what local places should be used for.
There are 100’s of great examples from across the country of what this looks like and what the benefits are (we explore many of these in our recent report Taking Ownership: Community empowerment through crowdfunded investment).
The following are five examples of how community shares can be used to rejuvenate the high street:
Pubs play a valuable role in supporting high streets as important social hubs and an integral part of the night-time economy. Many communities have turned to community shares crowdfunding to combat the closure of local pubs which is happening at an alarming rate. The Bevy Pub in Brighton was brought back to life through the sale of community shares to 700 people, raising a total of £70,000, after it had been closed down due to antisocial-behaviour a few years earlier. Like most other community pubs, the Bevy is much more than just a pub, it has room for local community groups to hold meetings, an (edible) community garden and provides a free bus service to local football matches.
Particularly in rural communities, community shares crowdfunding has been used to save local shops, driven by the large number of them closing each year. Community shops are often combined with other assets of value to the community such as a post office, cafe and or village hall. In 2015, residents of the village of Benenden in Kent, decided to save the village shop from closure, raising over £86,000 from 350 individuals through a community share issue. The store is now staffed by local volunteers, supported by professional managers and a management committee. Community shares crowdfunding is also used to fund shops in urban communities, however, this is more often motivated by an unfulfilled demand for local, organic, fresh and seasonal fruit, vegetables, and whole foods, than by the closure of existing shops.
Community ownership doesn’t need to be confined to buildings on the highstreet. Gap sites and otherwise underused spaces within the urban realm can be transformed by community shares powered projects, in ways that support wider community aims - for example health, wellbeing and community cohesion. In central Manchester, Projekts MCR has transformed a space under the motorway into a skatepark which brings the community together to get active and build confidence. In 2018, they raised £132,194 from 70 community shares investors to extend the park and build a community cafe. They run a programme of sessions and lessons to encourage participation from underrepresented groups (e.g. participation of girls and women has gone up from 160 visits in 2012 to 3,755 in 2018) and to bring other networks together (e.g. home schooled children).
In Stretford, hundreds of local people and businesses came together to raise £255,000 through the sale of community shares to fund the refurbishment of the historic Stretford Public Hall - a centre of community activities for over 100 years. This has enabled the ballroom and other rooms to flexibly host a range of activities from children’s theatre to artists’ workspace and co-working space. Run by volunteers, the space is designed to be shaped and used by the community in a participatory way. Supporting flexible spaces like this can enable the community to proactively participate in creating the types of arts, culture and wellbeing initiatives that they would like to see in their high street.
Community owned spaces on the high street have the opportunity to provide work and commercial space for local and social enterprises that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to rent spaces. This can be managed in a way that promotes opportunities for social integration of groups who would otherwise face barriers to being present on the high street. For example, Nudge Community Builders in Plymouth have a vision of bringing their high street back to life through community purchase of empty buildings. The first of these, The Clipper, bought with the £204,750 they were able to raise from their community alongside the help of a £85,000 one year bridging loan from the Affordable Housing Loan Facility of the Council, now hosts a local enterprise market, pop-up cafe and two apartments at affordable rent upstairs.
However, raising money in this way is not without its challenges. First of all, raising funding via community shares is hard and is something most community shops and groups will be unfamiliar with doing. To address this challenge we’ve put together this free and simple toolkit for anyone interested in exploring how to design a community shares offer.
However, often challenges go beyond getting the fundraising campaign altogether. Community groups often face difficulties in gaining access to assets or transitioning from grassroots fundraising to running a community business with a large number of investors to keep happy. Alongside this, there are potential challenges around ensuring that the diversity of those investing in and governing these assets is representative of the communities in which they belong. Local government and other institutional funders can play a crucial role supporting them through these challenges by offering flexible funding options (including grants, bridging loans and co-investment), helping them access space by easing the asset-transfer process and supporting meanwhile use, developing active communities and their relationship with local and city government, and investing in skills and capacity building. While they are significant, these are all challenges that can be addressed through the right kinds of partnership and strategy for community involvement, as illustrated by the examples above.
For more detail on the examples mentioned in this blog and other community projects, see our blog on ten stories of ways in which communities have used crowdfunding investment tools to create change locally.
For more support and guidance on community investment in the high street we also highly recommend the work done by Power to Change.