Let councils decide what happens on their local high street

The Centre for London think tank has argued that the government should give communities more say over their local high streets’ future and enable councils to support them to do this.

A new report urges the government to rethink plans to make it easier to turn shops into homes, and review powers to bring vacant commercial properties with unknown or negligent owners back into use.

With high streets at risk of further decline without further attention, the Centre for London also argues that meaningful and widespread community involvement will be essential to keeping the high street alive.

Although there are examples which show the economic and social benefits when communities are involved in decisions about their high streets and town centres, the report claims that initiatives to involve communities and support local authorities have not gone far enough. Town centre management bodies, which can shape community involvement, are not in place everywhere across the UK.

To support successful high street renewal, the report says that the government should: reconsider the extension of permitted development rights and allow councils to request exemptions where there is a risk to the survival of a local high street; review the powers of local authorities to bring long-term vacant commercial properties on the high street back into use; and build on existing programmes to fund high street strategies, by giving grants directly to councils, rather than allocating funding through a competitive bidding process.

Additionally, to give communities more say over their high street’s future, Centre for London recommends that local authorities create an inclusive town centre strategy with existing community or business groups. If local authorities cannot do this, Business Improvement Districts, other place partnerships or community groups could make a start instead and involve their local authority at a later stage. The Centre gives guidance on how to do this in the report.

Claire Harding, research director at Centre for London, said: “High street retail is declining but this doesn’t mean that our high streets need to. Lockdowns over the last year have accelerated the move away from bricks-and-mortar retail and online shopping has been made easier than ever before.

“But high streets are no longer just places to shop and have an important role at the centre of our communities. When retailers close, local people who use our high streets every day are best placed to decide what should happen. That’s why the government needs to give local authorities and their communities more power to decide what happens to their town centres.”

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