Empty Shops, Full of Opportunity

Who hasn’t noticed the growing vacancies on the Totnes High Street? Totnes has been more the exception than the rule, resisting the retail malaise that has struck High Streets all over Britain. It has, so far, resisted the encroachment of chain stores, while being held up as an example of a local economy thriving on tourism, community spirit and independent shops. For decades, local traders have opposed pedestrianisation, which is, ironically, a suggestion that many visitors make upon struggling their way up the High Street and The Narrows. A few years ago, a temporary traffic reversal was blamed for a few shops closing with an energetic campaign to reverse the reversal.

New Walk
Former home of numerous failed local restaurants.

But there are larger forces at work behind the current trend of closures. One obvious explanation is that shops are failing because people don’t want to buy what they’re selling. This is undoubtedly true for some, probably most, while a few are closing for strategic reasons of their own. A couple of multinational retail chains are opening new units, a SpecSavers and a Coffee One, a subsidiary of Cafe Nero. Both will put further pressure on locally-owned opticians, as well as local cafes and their local suppliers.

But retail dynamics are changing due to the rise of Amazon and internet retail, as well as changing demographics, and shifting consumer preferences. None of these factors have anything to do with which direction traffic flows up or down the High Street. With Brexit, and the economic difficulties it is already bringing likely to grow much worse in the coming years before it gets better, one can expect the relative economic resilience of our little town to be severely tested. We can see where we might be headed by looking at the recent history of High Streets in nearby towns, and more generally across the country. Might we be at the beginning of both a decline of our High Street retailers, as well as a rise of ‘corporate clones’?

What can we do to save our High Street and the character of our local economy? One thing is we can wait for government to do something about it. The truth is that ‘we’ have been waiting for ‘them’ to sort this issue, as well as a host of other issues, such as global heating and loss of biodiversity, for a long time. Corbyn has suggested that if Labour were to gain power, they would give power to local councils to seize empty shops and make them available for community use. It’s an interesting proposal, though probably poorly framed to gain wide support. Many High Street properties are owned by investment companies based elsewhere and disconnected from the local communities where their ‘assets’ are located. There are already ‘compulsory purchase‘ laws on the books that allow government to acquire properties, but the process is difficult. Giving local town councils planning powers might also address the systemic problem of bureaucratic and disconnected planning departments. The Neighbourhood Plan programme has so far failed to deliver on its promise to devolve such powers to local communities. Giving local councils the powers to control rents and rates might also be solutions. In any case, we can continue to wait for these or other changes, fingers crossed. But waiting isn’t very satisfying or effective.

One proactive approach is for the ‘community’ to acquire properties. This means a group of citizens, in the broadest sense of the term, coming together to incorporate a ‘beneficial society’ and/or ‘community land trust’ (CLT), raise funds through community share offer, debt, grant and, possibly, other means. The Totnes Community Development Society is such a project trying to redevelop the old Dairy Crest site, as well as manage the Mansion. Transition Homes is another CLT project that will build over 25 new and affordable, energy efficient homes. Because of these projects, and other beneficial society projects like Tresoc, there is now a fair amount of local ‘know how’. Could these models work to mobilize local interest and finance to acquire properties on the High Street? Something like this is happening in Minneapolis. It’s possible to do in Totnes and other places around the UK, however it’s not something that can happen overnight. But it could become part of a longer term endogenous, citizen-led development strategy adopted and pursued by a coalition of citizen groups, non-profit organisations and the town council.

Former Barclay's Bank
The new Coffee One before opening.

‘Proactive’ is a key word in all of this. Of late, for example, when Budgens and The Bull closed, there were flurries of activity reacting to these threats and opportunities. For each, there were urgent calls to rally local investors to the rescue. In each case there was not near enough lead time for a community-based acquisition, although a progressive local entrepreneur already had their eyes on the Bull which is now being transformed into a lovely gastro pub and inn, sure to benefit the local economy. When Barclays closed and it became clear that corporate chain, Coffee One, would be moving in, there were a small number of people asking, ‘why don’t we organise to protect our High Street’? Already, too late. Regarding other empty shops, one often overhears people saying things like ‘oh, they ought to make this a bakery or a shoe shop or, what if it became a community cafe, or…’ There’s really no shortage of imagination about what ‘they’ could do, going all the back to the first people to ponder the question, ‘what if the High Street were pedestrianised?’

So, who are ‘they’? Perhaps ‘they’ are the elected officials and their bureaux of trained up technocrats. But this small number of people have not the creative license nor the resources, to reinvent our local economies, no matter how smart, capable, caring, entrepreneurial and well-intentioned they may be. We’ve already seen the missteps by planners, for example approving a new ice cream shop right next door to an existing one.

The former Bull Inn,
The former Bull Inn getting a makeover by new owners.

I like to think ‘they’ could be local entrepreneurs. In fact, I think local entrepreneurism can play a big role in the transformation of local economies and their High Streets – including Totnes. What if local entrepreneurs were already anticipating storefronts and office spaces becoming available, ready to hit the ground running with innovative business models that would work in the context of local demand and local benefit, net-zero carbon footprint, and wider economic trends? Whether owned by the community, a community-minded landlord or an absentee landlord, without an enterprise of some kind able to occupy it, generate income and be financially self-sustaining, empty shops will either remain empty or rely on a steady stream of subsidies to keep the doors open. The level of rent and rates is an important factor. If too high, market forces will favour national and multinational operations before eventually falling, (or not!). Political action to reduce them will undoubtedly be more efficacious. In any case, citizen groups, local non-profit organisation, the town council, and local investors can play proactive roles in supporting and developing local entrepreneurship.

In Totnes, there is an evolving local enterprise ecosystem to support local entrepreneurs and enterprises. The REconomy Centre provides easy access space for co-working and incubation, occasional workshops for building capacity, informal coaching and networks. Some members have gone on to grow their local businesses. The Local Entrepreneur Forum (LEF) and Community of Dragons events over the last eight years have helped to generate local investment and support for 35 local enterprises and start ups, including New Lion Brewery, Argand Solutions, Apricot Centre and Dartington Mill. The School for Social Entrepreneurs has provided training and support to many local entrepreneurs, some of which have also been part of REconomy Centre and the LEF. South Hams District Council has played a role, providing the office space for REconomy Centre. And Devon County Council, through former councillor Robert Vint, made available about £25,000 in social investment for several local social ventures. The Totnes Town Council has recently formed a local economy working group which may help to facilitate more cooperation among various interests in the town, as well as, perhaps invest or attract resources for new projects. Coming online in the next 18 months, or so, will be South West Mutual Bank, a community-facing, cooperatively owned bank for the region, which will help provide finance for locally-owned small and medium businesses.

8th Community of Dragons, Totnes
8th Community of Dragons, Totnes

These resources, as well as the informal networks of local entrepreneurs and enterprise leaders, have made a difference, here. And it’s a robust ecosystem compared with many places around the country. But more could be done to help accelerate our local economic transition toward a more resilient and adaptive, inclusive and ecologically appropriate system – one able to deliver wellbeing to everyone, while reducing the carbon and ecological footprint associated with ‘business as usual’. For example, local ‘anchor institutions’ such as KEVICC and Dartington Hall, could shift more of their procurement to locally-owned enterprises. Local citizens with sufficient financial resources could join together to form an investor network and proactively invest in worthy local enterprises. And people could continue to buy less overall, but buy local instead, supporting local shops, makers and producers.

It’s generally recognized that we’re in a ‘climate emergency’ that will last for the rest of our lives. To ensure a decent life for our children and grandchildren, we must rapidly transform our economic system. These empty shops represent a big opportunity for a new kind of High Street, with new possibilities for good livelihoods and a healthy town centre. Surely community ownership of local properties, as well as a productive entrepreneurial culture, one creative and resourced enough to develop appropriate and community-beneficial enterprises, will play key roles in this transition. And this transition, of course, includes more than what goes on the High Street. We need to grow much more food, for example. Government and big business can play their roles, too, and when they do, their positive contributions will be welcome. In the meantime, there’s no point waiting and wishing ‘they’ would do something. ‘We’ can do something.

If you can, get involved. Start something up, make an investment, share your know how, help organise events, attend events, buy less and buy local, get connected. Join our social media channels at www.facebook.com/rpleft and www.twitter.com/reconomycentre.

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