cars parked on the side of the road during daytime
Photo by Dan Senior on Unsplash

We are delighted to be part of Labour’s High Street Commission. Our town centres are at a crossroads, and this Commission is a timely opportunity to not just tinker around the edges but to understand and embed the deep structural changes needed to breathe new life into them.

Even before this pandemic town centres faced many challenges. Our broken tax framework puts bricks and mortar on the back foot, while global tech giants don’t pay their fair share. National chains are closing flagship stores leaving hundreds of retail employees without jobs and gaping holes in the hearts of high streets.

Our banking system doesn’t serve our high streets either – bank branch closures reduce footfall into town centres and make it harder for small businesses to cash up at the end of the day too, while the financial system consistently fails to lend to SMEs and co-operatives looking for the funds to start up and grow.

Opaque ownership of land and buildings in town centres makes it incredibly difficult for communities to lead local regeneration or shape the character of their town. High rents and profit-seeking absentee landlords mean too often local residents are forced to choose between yet another betting shop they don’t want or an unsightly empty unit.

And even more shockingly research shows that one fifth of shops are owned by overseas investors. European and other international banks, global real estate investment trusts, other investment funds and wealthy private individuals make up the vast majority of overseas owners of UK shops. Distant disjointed ownership makes it difficult to develop bottom-up, accountable town centre plans – and crucially, the people with the power to shape our high streets are the not people who live there, shop locally, work in retail, enjoy spending time there or rely on its services.

This is not a recipe for thriving places that communities can feel proud of. Labour’s Commission on high streets will quite rightly explore ways we can tackle the scourge of shuttered shops and give local communities ownership and control of their neighbourhoods. As we gradually reopen and recover from the Covid crisis, we need to breathe new life into high streets – not a return to the past’s broken models but an opportunity to support communities to come together and shape the places they call home.

Around the country, some communities are already pioneering exciting new approaches, taking matters into their own hands. In Dumfries for example, the community have started a community benefit company to buy out empty shops and reopen them as the shops and services that they want to use and enjoy. On Union Street in Plymouth, the community have brought disused buildings to life as community markets, cafes and spaces for small businesses to thrive. In Dyffryn Ogwen, North Wales, the community, not absentee investors, are the landlords of many high street shops and any profit is funnelled back into the local area.

Working with the Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds MP, and the other Commissioners, we’re looking forward to ensuring our co-operative values help to build a more equal, resilient economy – one where our high streets thrive, local jobs are anchored in a place and secured into the future, and where communities are empowered lead that change.