04 May 2023 | High Street

Community + property = success?

We all know our high streets are changing. Brands that were once ubiquitous are now gone and empty shops line what were once buzzing town centres in many parts of the country. It’s clear that something needs to change and a lot of thought is going on in the industry into how to repurpose redundant retail space.

One area of this discussion that hasn’t really attracted the interest it deserves is how to get more community-led and socially-trading enterprises into town centres. Businesses run by and for local people often have more staying power and more commitment to a place than big chains whose decisions might be made in an HQ hundreds of miles away. And they can give people a greater sense of ownership and pride than chain outlets that can be found everywhere.

This is why we are big supporters of Platform Places, an initiative to unlock town centre buildings for amazing ideas. The aim is to bring together councils, communities and asset owners to form local property partnerships – get people talking and realising that by working together you can bring buildings into community use for long term local benefit.

Last week under the Platform Places banner I joined a diverse group of more than 20 property owners, community entrepreneurs, artists, architects, and politicians for two days of fascinating visits and conversations across the Liverpool City Region. Personal highlights included meeting the team running Homebaked, just across the road from Liverpool FC’s stadium, visiting Kitty’s Launderette, a co-operative providing affordable cleaning services and a place to meet in a decidedly down-at-heel part of town and checking out the space that Make CIC are making available to local artists and makers.

There were more inspirational stories, but in every case also a litany of challenges faced just to find the space in which to carry out a socially targeted enterprise. From a lack of available funding, through unresponsive and unengaged property owners to risk-averse local authorities. It’s hard enough finding space as a commercial start-up, but for businesses more focused on delivering social returns than financial ones it can be next to impossible.

And yet social enterprises must surely be an important part of our future high streets. They contribute to more diverse and emotionally engaging places than the “clone towns” whose bubble has been deflating over the past ten years. And with both central and local government finances stretched very thinly in the face of stagnant personal incomes, I suspect we’ll increasingly rely on community initiatives to provide us with general life support.

Property owners are rightly thinking more closely about their social impact, though there’s a lot of head scratching about how to measure this nebulous and potentially very broad concept. Place-based impact investing is a positive development here. Places are where we live, work and spend time. We relate to them on a very personal level and build our identity around them. Surely then it makes sense to try and invest more (increasingly socially conscious) institutional capital through a place-based lens and there is growing interest in this as a concept.

But there are challenges involved, not least marrying up community enterprises’ relatively small individual funding requirements with institutions’ need to deploy capital at scale. And how to assess the social returns of a particular investment. These aren’t insurmountable though and it’s worth looking at how social investor Kindred provides 0% loans that are partly repayable by demonstrating social impact (as well as more conventional cash repayment).

Not every community enterprise needs its own space, but a majority of them do and there’s a real opportunity at this moment of heightened investor interest in social impact (and fairly high levels of town centre vacancy!) to connect the all-too-often disparate worlds of property and community for everyone’s benefit.

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Ion Fletcher Director of Policy (Finance)