Join our campaign to ‘Unlock the High Street’ and revive our community hubs

As part of my work with the Cooperative Party’s Unlock the High Street task force, this article was published on Labour List in July 2021.

Stroud district is a pioneering place in so many ways. We are home to so many independent shops, bustling communities full of doers and one of the first local currencies in the country. We have community farming, community-led housing and community-owned shops.

Stroud District Council covers a patchwork of six different market towns, each with their own powerful identity and a strong pride of place. This helps to drive our bottom-up approach to politics, because we know that the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and because, with 52 town and parish councils across our district, partnership working is at the heart of everything we do.

Pre-pandemic, there was a narrative of high street decline. But we’re seeing a revival. People are happier shopping locally, feeling safer out and about in responsible local shops and with a renewed understanding that unless they use them they will lose them forever. We’re starting to see an influx, too, of people who have chosen after repeated lockdowns to move out of cities and into towns.

Our manifesto in the recent local elections put this regenerative feeling, partnership working and community leadership at its heart. We want to support high streets to be community hubs, to ensure they’re spaces we feel proud of and have ownership over. It’s important, too, for our work to cut carbon emissions, supporting local supply chains and shifting to a more sustainable approach.

With this context, I am delighted to be a pioneer for the Co-operative Party’s high streets campaign. With both national policy asks and local actions we can all take, it encapsulates what the co-op movement means to me: a place for radical politics, yes, but underpinned by a deeply practical ethos that gets on with driving positive change from the bottom up. It isn’t enough to bemoan the status quo: as co-operators, we are on the vanguard of changing it to something better and fairer. In Stroud district, that means asking ourselves: what can we do practically now? How can we use our public spaces differently? How can we ensure communities are in the driving seat?

We have Co-operative Party representatives not just on our district council, but on town and parish councils. As well as being leader of Stroud District Council, for example, I am also a member of the town council in my hometown Dursley. We’re thinking about how we can increase footfall in Dursley and make the most of communal spaces to build on our already strong sense of community spirit. Town centres aren’t just a place where we shop, but a space to socialise, meet our neighbours and be creative. So we are developing late night opening days where we can enjoy music together as well as supporting local businesses.

One of the Co-operative Party’s ‘Unlock The High Street’ campaign actions is to create community improvement districts, and this is something I’m especially keen to get stuck into developing in Stroud district. These are able to reconnect communities with the levers that drive economic development in town centres and create an equal partnership of business and community organisations to galvanise action at a local level. They’ve been trialled in places like Possilpark in Scotland and would bolster our work on high streets locally, too.

The campaign also highlights difficult issues requiring proper reform, and it is crucial that we come together to push awareness and make change happen at a national level. One of the headline issues the campaign raises is transparency – or a lack of it. In our district’s towns, like most other town centres around the country, we have fiendishly complicated brownfield sites where people look at these eyesores and bemoan the lack of action from the council, when actually they remain derelict for years because of their many remote owners.

Many landowners on our high streets are registered in tax havens and it is incredibly difficult to track them down and engage them in local improvements. Even with the political will, as we have in Stroud, it’s complicated and difficult – and without the transparency powers that the Co-operative Party is calling for, other powers that councils have at their disposal like compulsory purchase can be meaningless.

We are also in desperate need of rates reform in order to support high street businesses recover from the pandemic and level the playing field between online and high street businesses, to make it fair and sustainable for all. And we need to have a conversation about commercial rents. One local business owner had two shops, one each in two local towns. One landlord gave them a rent break during lockdown and the other didn’t, and therefore one of the shops has been able to bounce back and the other has not. One of the challenges for which I am keen to develop solutions is how we deliver parity for local businesses.

I am passionate about using empty shops. Rather than leave places shuttered and derelict, I want to see greater powers for councils and communities to fill the gap. It’s a win-win: shops are not left empty, the community can shape its use in between lets and the landlord doesn’t have to deal with the property’s dereliction.

Steve Reed, a Labour and Co-operative MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is helping to lead the Labour Party’s work on planning reform. I’m keen to link this with our campaign to ensure that, at the heart of any reform, we empower communities with greater powers. We must see the high street in a holistic way, not just a transactional place for shopping but a thriving hub with community at its heart.

I feel quite hopeful that we will see a revival. In my own town, we have a real energy and appetite that we need to capture and build on as our local economies recover. We can unlock our high streets and build powerful collaborative partnerships between local government, party activists and communities. The Co-operative Party’s Unlock The High Street campaign gives us the framework to do just this and should galvanise us to take action now. So I’m proud to be a high streets pioneer, and hope you’ll join me.