By Claire West

With the average national vacancy rates on high streets expected to exceed 15 per cent as cuts to public services, consolidations of chain stores and national economic conditions play out local economies, nef (the new economics foundation) believes we should be turning our attention to new ways to reinvigorate our town centres.

"The Ordinance Survey data only confirms that our local high streets are dynamic places, which reflect how we choose to spend our time, and the wider economic conditions. But the signs of the end of the retail age suggests that we need to completely re-evaluate what our town centres are for,” said Elizabeth Cox, head of the Connected Economies at nef, and an author of Reimagining the High Street.

“The high streets could become a hub for the renewal of local democracy and civil society - a place where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities. We need to open up opportunities within the Localism Bill currently being debated to support sustainable local high streets - ones that promote local well being, and support us to live more sustainably. Councils need to start using the Sustainable Communities Act which was put in place for this purpose.”

“Some councils are already giving empty shops over to local people, providing spaces for art projects, local currency development and community sustainability projects. If our high streets are to avoid becoming ghost towns, we’ll need much more of these kind of initiatives which bring empty properties into active use.”

What local government and other public institutions can do

Establish High Street Hubs in key vacant shops to accommodate activities that help develop local economic sustainability. These could range from local currency development (like Brixton £) to local food distribution and tool share/exchange schemes. NB. These are NOT general ‘community centres’.

Sign up to the Sustainable Communities Act

Make residents an equal partner in your Master Planning processes

Design well-being, distinctiveness and sustainability indicators into your Master Planning processes.

Build in well-being measures in addition to sustainability into your procurement policies

Support and help grow local Community Land Trusts

Pursue the principles of Shared Space in your public space development

Ensure resident participation in Business Improvement Districts

Use the extension of discretionary business rate relief powers (included as part of the Localism Bill) to support new low carbon businesses moving on to the high street and to existing small and medium independent businesses who commit to reduce their carbon use.

What national government can do

Roll out the Post Office Bank

Develop a land registry of commercial property so we can understand who owns our town centres.

Create an Empty Dwellings Management Order instrument for

Local Authorities to apply to empty builds to bring them back into active use for public benefit.

Establish a Local Competition Ombudsman as recommended by the Competition Commission which will reign in the power of the big four grocery chains.

Revising allotment legislation to encourage Local

Authorities to provide more allotments, community gardens, community orchards or market gardens.

Ensure the Localism Bill promotes sustainable high street and gives local people real power over their high streets to determine if a new development actively supports distinctiveness, diversity and sustainability of their local economy.

Introduce well-being indicators into all Planning Policy statements

Introduce a Green Investment Bank