Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire is one of six UK locations identified in a new report as examples of how local community access and ownership of key buildings can be pivotal to help save the UK’s beleaguered high streets.
New report reveals how tackling fragmented and remote property ownership vital to future of town centres
Survey calls for public to help identify empty buildings blighting their neighbourhoods
Commissioned by independent trust Power to Change, Saving the High Street: the community takeover by the London School of Economics and Political Science, reveals how fragmented property ownership; a lack of transparency on who owns high street buildings; and absentee landlords with no vested interest in local places, are a barrier to creating unified high street regeneration strategies that can address the increasing number of buildings sitting empty.
The report, which explores how community businesses can help revive the high street’s fortunes, also showed that where local authorities have helped facilitate community business ownership and access to both public and privately-owned buildings, as within Hebden Bridge, it has created more vibrant and resilient high streets.
The research also revealed that economically, community businesses deliver what high streets and local people need. Run by local people who understand their communities, they offer diverse and distinctive services tailored to local requirements. This localism brings a stability to a high street that contrasts with remote corporate businesses more inclined to pull out of areas when business models stop working.
In the case of Hebden Bridge, the local authority has taken significant steps to help the local community take over the ownership of several key buildings in the town and use them to provide a wide range of distinctive services. As a result, Hebden Bridge has become a destination town in the Upper Calder Valley boosting existing businesses in the town and in turn, the local economy.
Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of independent trust Power to Change, said:
“Whilst changing retail habits may have kick-started the decline of our high streets, it is the underlying issue of fragmented property ownership and disengaged remote landlords that in the end will choke the life from them if we don’t act now.
Community ownership is vital to the revival of the high street. Communities not only care passionately about their local area, more importantly they understand the needs of local people and provide distinctive services that meet local needs. This new research shows what can be achieved in places like Hebden Bridge when local authorities get behind communities and help local people to take ownership over their high street buildings. The results are stable, sustainable and thriving town centres that are in the best possible shape to deal with any future crisis.”
Craig Whittaker, MP for the Calder Valley, said:
“There is no other place quite like Hebden Bridge! The town is renowned for its distinctive ambiance and friendly feel.
The Report emphasises the correlation between property ownership and creating towns with a sense of community and purpose. This is interesting, and we can build on the Report’s findings and Hebden Bridge’s successes to improve the sense of identity in other towns across Calder Valley.”
Hebden Bridge is a small market town that rapidly industrialised in the 18th century and became known for its weaving mills. Unlike similar former industrial towns, today Hebden Bridge’s town centre is seen as one of the most vibrant in the UK and in 2016, won Small Market Town Prize in the Great British High Street Awards.
The town has faced several challenges in over the last ten years, with three significant floods. Despite this, and as a result of an unusually high number of community businesses in the town, including several on the high street, Hebden Bridge has remained buoyant and carries few vacancies.
Dating from 1897, former Hebden Bridge Town hall now operates as a community hub run by the Hebden Bridge Community Association. It’s position, right in the centre of town makes it an anchor business and generates footfall in the area. There is also Valley Organics, a co-operative which has two shops on the high street and a community pub, The Fox and Goose. The Trades Club, a member-owned co-operative, is a music venue and social space.
A key factor in Hebden Bridge’s resilience is that Calderdale Council has actively worked to secure a future for community assets through a ‘Community Anchors’ policy. In 2010, the local authority gave Hebden Town Hall to the Hebden Bridge Community Association (HBCA), along with a grant of £60,000 and a loan of the same amount. The Town Hall now offers events space, weddings, conferences, office space for business, and a café.
Community business has clearly played an important part in building resilience in the town. For businesses in Hebden Bridge, the Covid-19 pandemic is not the first time they have had to shut shop for a significant period of time, as was the case with the floods in 2012, 2015, and 2020. The Town Hall served as a fulcrum of efforts to rebuild in each case, hosting and organising volunteers and helping the town build back.
Call for local authorities to act now:
The report calls on local authorities and statutory funders to do more to support community businesses to grow their presence on high streets. It argues that promoting greater ownership will help secure the high street’s future by making it more diverse and less reliant on remote corporate retail organisations. To do that local authorities need to:
- Connect community businesses with vacant properties on the high street
- Ease the asset transfer process
- Support ‘meanwhile use’ of buildings and management leases of high street assets directly to trusted community businesses
- Provide leases which are secured, or which start at a low level and scale up gradually, giving community business the space to grow and become
Six thriving ‘destinations’
The report explored the role of community businesses in the regeneration of six locations across England and Scotland:
- The Old Library in Bodmin, Cornwall - where a significant local building has been used by a community business as a cultural facility, drawing visitors to the high street
- Midsteeple Quarter, Dumfries - a community-led initiative which is developing a group of high street buildings into a live/work quarter
- Made in Ashford, Kent - an independent shop which provides a platform for local business to sell on the high street and for community-based craft activities
- Hebden Bridge Town Centre, West Yorkshire - a town with a thriving high street, with multiple community businesses supported by the local authority through their ‘community anchors’ policy
- Radcliffe Market Hall in Bury, Greater Manchester – a rejuvenated market hall, combining a traditional market with an evening dine-in street food and community venue
- Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, Oxford – where members of the local community are trying to bring an independent cinema into community ownership.
In each destination, community businesses played a pivotal role in helping to create a place that is distinctive and which offers people a more diverse mix of services including meeting spaces, health & well-being activities, cultural offerings, homes and business spaces, as well as retail.
“Created by local people to meet their needs, community businesses are inherently distinctive to their local areas. And it is that special character and the services they provide which makes them a destination. When strategically positioned on a high street, community businesses can act as an anchor to a place, from which other businesses benefit. People coming to a community business for a well-being class could afterwards stop for a coffee at a local independent café and pick up some ingredients for dinner. The result is a business eco-system that benefits everyone,”
What is a community business?
A community business is set up and run by the community in a particular place to address local challenges and deliver positive impact. They are accountable to and trade for the benefit of the local community and any profits generated are reinvested locally.
For more details and to view the full report, please visit www.powertochange.org.uk