A Co-operative Recovery

Harnessing the power of community ownership to save our high streets

Vidhya Alakeson

Power to Change

Community Ownership

Vidhya Alakeson is the founding Chief Executive of Power to Change, an independent trust established in 2015 to support the growth of community businesses across the UK to strengthen communities and create better places – led from the bottom up.

Ownership matters. The public outrage, earlier this year, at plans for a European Super League was a powerful reminder of this. When owners are distant from the communities they operate in, this can have catastrophic impact. When local people have community ownership of places, spaces and institutions that are important to them it has a hugely powerful effect. They have a genuine say over the way in which they’re run and can leverage this ownership to generate wider economic and social impact for their communities.

This is the case for our high streets too. They are spaces rich with the history of the local place; they act as important markers of civic pride and can drive or hinder wider social and economic regeneration. In recent decades, many of our country’s most treasured high streets have suffered decline. Shuttered buildings are a commonplace and there is a growing homogeneity of big-chain retail stores, betting shops and fast-food outlets.

This decline has been further accelerated by the pandemic, as large and small ‘non-essential’ retailers have had to close their doors for extended periods since the pandemic hit. Those with an existing online retail presence have been able to adapt most easily. One of the biggest winners during the pandemic is online retail giant Amazon, which has seen its stock price soar.

But none of this is new. For too long, this retail-dominated model of our high streets has been driven by property owners and landlords that have never set foot on the high streets over which they have so much influence. This needs to change, if we are to build stable, sustainable high streets fit for the future. Successive governments haven’t grasped the nettle boldly enough and acted to bring about the radical reform our town centres need.

Despite this, we’re beginning to see, in pockets, the first shoots of a new civic high street, which adequately responds to the unique challenges of the twenty first century. In places like Plymouth and Dumfries, communities have taken control of their high streets. This hasn’t been easy. It has required unrelenting energy and commitment and a willingness to take on vested interests.

Through this essay, I’ll share their stories and draw out what this means for our politics and policy. The high street represents a major arena on which, in the coming years, many of our most pressing social and political battles will be fought. Let’s ensure we’re fighting in the interests of our communities.


How did we get here?

Our land ownership and high streets’ history is long and complicated, but it’s worth considering some of the major structural shifts we’ve seen and how they’ve led to today’s situation. One of the most important facts for us to keep in mind is that community ownership is not a new phenomenon.

For centuries, communal land was something that British citizens had access too. Large scale enclosure of land at the end of the 18th century saw much of this common land divided up and given to a handful of individuals. Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?, estimates that today half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population.

The history of the high street has followed a similar trajectory. Look back some 100 years, and you can find high streets which were civic spaces as much as commercial ones – with townhalls, meeting spaces, housing, and churches all part of the mix at the heart of a town. This began to change with the growth of consumer culture in 19th century and continued to accelerate during the first half of the 20th century.

This consumption- and retail-driven high street model (which helped increase wealth and living standards for many) began to suffer numerous setbacks after the Second World War - from the opening of the UK’s first supermarkets in the 60s and the growth of out-of-town shopping centres in the 90s to the increasing ease and ubiquity of online shopping. In the noughties, researchers had begun to complain about Clone Town Britain. Arguably, this has become even more true in recent years, post-economic crash, as payday lenders and betting shops have moved into fill the void left by the closure of trusted household names like BHS, Woolworths and JJB Sports.

Today, there is deafening consensus across the political spectrum, and in different fields from local government to retail property owners, that the current model is dead. What there isn’t consensus over, is what comes next.


The hurdles trailblazing places have faced along the way

Nudge Community Builders provide us a glimpse of what we’d like to see come next. Theirs is an inspiring story of a local community, bit by bit, transforming Union Street in Plymouth. The street was, back in the 70s, a bustling, busy destination for a night out. But since then it has seen decline, and rising property vacancy.

Hannah Sloggett and Wendy Hart, co-founders of Nudge, have over the past few years been working with residents to bring buildings back into use that the market initially wouldn’t otherwise go near and breathing new life into their high street. Today, the challenge has flipped. Owing in part to their initial work to regenerate the area, there is now fierce competition for properties. This comes from potential owners that don’t have the community roots and vision for the place that Nudge does.

Through this process they have come up against several key challenges – including a lack of clarity on ownership. So often, they’ve asked: who owns the derelict buildings we are trying to bring into community ownership? Time and time again, they’ve struggled to get an answer. Often, the truth makes things no clearer, with complex multi-layered levels of ownership, which have often led to offshore trusts. This process is repeated for each space they want to take into community hands. Ownership is fragmented and remote as well as opaque.

This is one of the central challenges for the future of our high streets. Moving ownership into the hands of those who have the strongest interests to act in the long-term interests of the place- communities – will protect high streets for the long term.

Nudge have also struggled to move at the pace of private capital. When a building comes onto the market, it is deep pocketed investors that can mobilse quickly to take a building into ownership. This is a complaint we hear regularly from community businesses. They have the ideas, drive and ambition for a high street that can benefit the wider community. What they don’t have is ready access to capital.

Despite this, Nudge has persisted with its mission to transform Union Street. Today, they are responsible for a community-owned market, a café, and The Plot - an alternative shopping arcade in which local entrepreneurs can rent small spaces to develop their business ideas. They now have their sights set on re-imagining the Millennium Building, which over the years has existed as a dance hall, roller disco and much-loved nightclub. Two of these buildings were taken on during the pandemic, which hasn’t deterred them in their ambition to transform the street. Nudge’s activity across Union Street provides an important focal point which drives up footfall and spending at other businesses on the high street.

The Midsteeple Quarter is another inspiring example of a community-owned high street. The community started a community benefit company to begin buying up whole swathes of the Dumfries high street. They are bringing 8 underused High Street properties under community control and refurbishing these as a contemporary living, working, socialising, learning and enterprising quarter.

Both Midsteeple Quarter and Nudge have used crowdfunding and issued community share offers to give local people a say and stake in their high street projects. Hardwiring this community buy in is central to their success.

In Scotland, a more supportive legislative environment has also helped. There is a ‘Community Right to Buy’ which gives communities first refusal on land and buildings that would help support that community’s sustainable development. We would like to see a similar policy introduced in England. The Scottish Land Fund also provides capital grants to local people to help them purchase and redevelop assets.


How policy change can help move these examples from the margins to the mainstream

I was delighted to see the Labour Party, earlier this year, announce its Commission on Rebuilding Our High Streets and that the Co-operative Party is represented in its ranks. I hope this marks the beginning of a substantial shift in thinking we haven’t seen to date. Here, I lay out ideas the Shadow Chancellor and other commissioners might consider, borne from the experiences of community businesses across the country.

Community Improvement Districts

In so many cases, communities have taken control of spaces and places in spite of the system, not because of it. Some have been supported and enabled by local government or other property owners. But this benevolence doesn’t exist everywhere. The odds are stacked against community ownership and control of town centres and high streets. So, we think we need a new institution at the neighbourhood level which gives power back to local people. In 2019, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee called for the establishment of Community Improvement Districts (CID). These would build on the existing Business Improvement District model but critically bring communities to the table to ensure that their views and solutions are part of shaping decision-making about high streets and town centres going forward. Since then, in Scotland, they have established the UK’s first CID.

Labour and Co-operative-led councils In England should act now to provide energy and support to places wanting to pilot these new institutions. At the national level, the Labour Party should consider, through both the High Streets Commission and the Constitutional Commission, how these could be rolled out across the country. A key consideration will be how they complement existing forms of governance, such as parish councils and neighbourhood forums. A one-size-fits all model won’t cut it. But we need national coverage to ensure community power is hardwired into our future high streets.

Local registers of ownership

The biggest owners of vacant units are real estate and property companies (one in four) and overseas investors (over one in five). Just one in ten vacant units are owned by the public sector or social sector. So, work needs to be done to address the opaque land ownership picture. The government, in 2016, committed to introducing a ‘register of beneficial owners’ for overseas legal entities that own land in the UK. Since then, work has been undertaken to assess the feasibility of such a scheme and draft legislation has been published. But we are yet to see action.

More recently, the government also proposed that there should be local public registers of ownership based on Land Registry data. But this data is too patchy. We need to put pressure on government to create these registers that it has committed to, as well as pressuring them to expand the scale and scope of data that are included in the registers.

A High Streets Buyout Fund

A greater level of ownership transparency would be especially helpful in the coming months. If, as predicted, vacancy rates increase further still, vulture capitalists will be on the hunt for depreciated property. They will have the capital to move quickly. We need a vehicle which can move at this same pace and has the necessary funding to compete on the open market - but with the ultimate aim being to get properties into community hands. This has been a missing part of the high streets puzzle for communities for some time. So, we are assessing the feasibility of a High Streets Buyout Fund which can do just this.

The Fund would work with a range of stakeholders, including retail property experts and community stakeholders, to develop terms of reference. These terms will guide the way in which the Fund will be used – such as the value, location and other characteristics of the property the fund purchases. More importantly, we envisage the fund working with local stakeholders to assess appetite for management or ownership of property in the near- to medium-term. Ownership is the ultimate aim, but for many groups medium and long-term leases will be more appropriate, at least initially.

A one-time endowment would enable this investment fund to continue to purchase properties into the future. This is the sort of big, bold policy that a Labour government could help capitalise, which shows they’re on the side of communities and local people, rather than footloose capital.



For decades, much of Britain’s political conversation has seemed hopelessly stuck in an argument about the size of the state: you’re either on the Left and want the government to intervene more and spend more; or you’re on the Right, and want it to do less. The possibility that politics is also about empowering people and local institutions is largely ignored. However, events in recent years have opened up space for a political party to confidently occupy this space.

‘Take Back Control’ is one of the most recognisable political slogans of recent times. Whatever your views on the vote to leave the European Union, these three simple words captured people’s imaginations. Across the country, in small towns and major cities, people feel a sense of powerlessness to affect change in their communities. They feel powerless to stop the decline of the places they call home, or the rapid gentrification of their neighbourhoods. A politics which puts communities in the lead can help push back against this feeling of powerlessness. Importantly, it can be electorally successful.

Our high streets are one of the places in which this rapid change is most visible. Putting communities at the heart of our high streets - in turn protecting and reimagining their histories, traditions and local character - provides a clear opportunity to demonstrate we’ve moved on from the old debates of left versus right. Now’s the time to boldly put forward a politics of empowerment instead.

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