Breathing life back into our high streets

High streets and town centres can’t be regenerated by businesses alone, says Sophie Alexander-Parker. Community inclusion is key to making places work

High streets and town centres can't be regenerated by businesses alone, says Sophie Alexander-Parker. Community inclusion is key to making places work

The deterioration of high streets has been a consistent topic of discussion in the UK over the past decade, with the Government implementing numerous schemes to help struggling businesses and regenerate high streets and town centres across the country.

While Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have had some success, it is apparent that a business- led approach without including local people and community businesses can only achieve so much.

Ipswich Central is a BID company, set up in 2007 with the core purpose to transform life in Ipswich town centre by putting people and place first. Its inclusive vision for community regeneration is one shared by Power to Change, the independent trust that strengthens communities through community business. That is why we have been taking part in its pilot programme for Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) which has been testing the model in six locations across England.

Community-led businesses and residents have much to contribute to town centre regeneration and part of the aim of CIDs is to make sure they have a seat at the table alongside traditional stakeholders – like councils, businesses and property owners – where decisions are being made about the future of our high streets.

As part of the pilot programme, we have been exploring how a CID can develop and operate effectively within the local community and one of the greatest challenges we have come across is the issue of how to bring people together from diverse groups and make sure everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect them.

Like most towns, Ipswich is ever-changing and evolving. Its community is a complex system of stakeholders, interests, ownerships and priorities, which is why it is so important that every part of the community plays a role in planning for the future. This consultation process has taken co-ordination and flexibility from our team to engage the right groups and make sure key community stakeholders were represented in planning meetings.

Our particular focus on engaging young people in decisions has seen us take a direct approach, holding workshop sessions in local colleges and schools to gather input rather than expecting them to attend structured, formal meetings.

Young people want to be more involved in what is happening to their local community. They have told us they would like more of their artwork to be featured in public. This type of engagement is where ‘pride in place' will start.

While it has not always been possible to get diverse groups of people from within the community around the table at every meeting, there are other ways to ensure voices are heard and represented in the process.

Empowering local leaders to engage more broadly with the community on issues that affect them and having a flexible approach –bringing in representatives from different groups only when needed as part of our Connected Town Task Force –have both helped with this.

As a result of community consultation we have been able to gather qualitative information on supporting specific changes and have provided valuable insights and recommendations on short- and long-term priorities to our Vision Board at Ipswich Central. For example, community stakeholders have been asked to submit a response to a transport strategy for Ipswich and input from the Connected Town Task Force has led to recommendations for diverting funding to a core area of the town centre to tackle anti-social behaviour issues.

Ultimately, it is clear greater collaboration between public and private sectors, businesses and communities and BIDs and CIDs is the only way real and lasting change can be created and our town centres and high streets enabled to thrive once more. But this kind of change takes time, which means that long-term funding for projects such as Power to Change's CID pilot programme is essential to help realise the plans that have already been developed for places like Ipswich.

The Government's newly proposed High Street Accelerator Programme is an example of where new funding is being allocated to support the aims of CIDs and help communities take back control of their local high streets. But, with a modest budget of just £2.5m split between ten areas, it is hard to see how much can be achieved from this.

The Government must look to programmes like ours that are being run across the country to learn how best to support meaningful change through community involvement and maximise any future investments made in this space. The future of our high streets and town centres depends on it.

Sophie Alexander-Parker is chief executive officer at Ipswich Central and All About Ipswich, in partnership with Power to Change



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