Save Our Shops: The Community Projects Reshaping Britain’s High Streets

Save Our Shops: The Community Projects Reshaping Britain’s High Streets

Celebrating the independents traders, shops and community-first businesses that are coming together to change the UK high street’s fortune. These are the people, places and projects saving our high streets.

This article appears in Vol. 32: Homegrown.

British high street hasn’t shut up shop. It’s easy to buy
into the narrative that the Great British high street is bust at a
time when big-name businesses are vanishing quicker than a bag of
Percy Pigs passed around on a road trip. In the first half of 2019,
16 stores closed every single day – the fastest rate on record. But
instead of mourning mass retailers or bowing to the beast of online
shopping – Deliveroo can even schlep your groceries nowadays –
communities and independents across the UK are coming together to
change their high street’s fortune. It’s not over. Not yet.

Faced with graffiti-strewn shutters and ghost-town streets,
fierce community operatives are rallying to turn empty commercial
spaces into neighbourhood hubs, while passionate, independent
shopkeepers are breathing life into derelict buildings. In my
former seaside home of Bournemouth, shelves shine with produce
plucked from New Forest farms, the smell of sourdough wafts from
family-owned bakeries and Boscombe’s boutiques throw up vintage
treasures… and the odd wetsuit.

Instead of seeing boarded-up buildings as barriers, locals up
and down the country are coming together to reclaim their high
streets. And they’re succeeding. According to charitable trust
Power to Change, community-owned shops have a 94-per-cent survival
rate and a massive 56p of every £1 spent in a cooperative space is
pumped back into the area’s local economy.

Put simply, by buying my coffee from my neighbourhood roaster as
opposed to Pret; by dropping into a Made by Ore jewellery workshop
instead of trawling Asos; and by visiting The Ivy House – London’s
first cooperatively owned pub – rather than drinking my wages in
Wetherspoons, I’m putting my money straight back into my community.
Economically sustainable choices really don’t have to mean going

For 85 years, Mitchells Bakery plied Anfield locals with fresh
bread, rolls and pies. Yet in 2010, this residential neighbourhood
in northern Liverpool faced demolition under the council’s Housing
Market Renewal Initiative and many residents were moved to
alternative social housing. Mitchells had no choice but to shut.
However, those locals who had stayed put bandied together, forming
a cooperative that aimed to make something of the abandoned bakery.
Their action transformed not only the bakery but many of the empty
surrounding houses, which were transferred into community
ownership. It’s the same fighting spirit you’d expect from
Liverpool F.C. when they’re 2-0 down at half time.

opened in 2013 with big plans and just three employees. Fast
forward to today, thousands of crusty rolls, floured baps and
Scouse pies later, it’s thriving. There are now 20 people on the
team, 80 per cent of whom come from the local community. They’re
baking 100 fresh loaves a day and 3,000 award-winning pies – the
latter of which are made just a few miles away in Bootle, while
meat comes from a butcher in nearby Walton Vale. Visit the bakery
on match day – Liverpool F.C.’s Anfield Stadium is just across the
road – and you’ll see queues of Reds hungry for their homemade pie

Sit down with any Anfield resident for a cuppa and they’ll let
you in on the key to Homebaked’s success. “Community,” says
Sally-Anne Watkiss, Homebaked’s Treasurer who’s been with the
collective since its early bakes. “Community business ensures that
money keeps circulating in the local economy and that helps boost
local enterprises.” It’s not just about balancing the books; loaf
by loaf it has brought hope to an area once scarred by
unemployment, failing fast-food joints and few opportunities. “By
working together, the new high-street businesses grow together
too,” Sally-Anne beams.

Trot along Oakfield Road and you’ll find Kitty’s
, a cooperative that has been a driving force behind
Anfield’s transformation since it opened in 2019. More than
somewhere to wash your dirty socks, the launderette – powered by
renewable energy – doubles up as a welcoming space. Locals knock
elbows in its coffee shop and meet for events including “free tea
‘n’ toast” mornings, language classes and book readings. Forget
wash-and-go, Kitty’s wants its visitors to wash-and-grow.

Community business ensures that money keeps circulating in the local economy and that helps boost local enterprises

Sally-Anne Watkins

Spurred by childhood memories of closed youth clubs and run-down
theatres, Kitty’s founder Grace Harrison had been inspired by
Homebaked’s success. For her, community-owned businesses are the
future of the high street – and not simply because they offer
affordable amenities. “By engaging with local people, our decisions
can be led by our community’s needs and desires,” she says. In the
short time they’ve been open, Kitty’s Launderette has improved the
wellbeing and eco-consciousness of its neighbourhood – and it’s
only by pulling together with others that this real, tangible
change has happened.

It’s a similar story in Catford, a south-east London suburb
where community life revolves around its collectively managed
orchard, grassroots film festival and monthly book clubs. Local
authorities saw its residents’ eagerness to buy back the town
centre and so, after a successful kickstarter campaign raised
thousands of pounds, Catford Mews was born. Taking over a former Poundland
store, this independent cinema, event space and food court – in
which local vendors serve everything from jerk chicken to Japanese
street food – was exactly what the town had been craving. Its
low-rent pop-up spaces, the kind of which are so rarely found in
London’s poorer areas, have become a lifeline for small, start-up
businesses. It’s an essential ally for those in an often-overlooked

It’s not just cooperatives that can bring much-needed pennies to
failing high streets. Many of the gaps left by bankrupt big
businesses are being filled by innovative independents. There’s a
certain creative energy running through North
, a Scottish seaside town dubbed the “Biarritz of the
North”. Here, a jewellery designer and antique furniture restorer
came together to form Whynot? in 2013. Arguably Scotland’s most
successful independent marketplace, the venture transformed an
abandoned supermarket into a locavore trading hub of fishmongers,
apothecaries, artists, delis and florists.

Step into Whynot? and you’ll be reminded of a time when the high
street was the beating heart of the community. Market traders
bellow to one another, chatter drifts from the café and your local
food shop takes twice as long because you’re busy swapping stories
with the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. This is a place that
is as good for socialising as it is spending.

High-street outlets aren’t just about shifting products; in a
world where online shopping is king, their USP is face-to-face
interaction. Smaller, against-the-grain stores tend not only to
offer well-curated wares, but encourage consumers back to town
centres through using their space for a greater good. When
high-street spending plummeted in Exeter in 2018, indie shop owners
on Fore Street pulled together to protect their community and,
through that, their own businesses too. Take Sancho’s, for
example. It sells sustainable pieces of clothing, organises
clothes-swaps and hosts talks that raise awareness of the damaging
impact of fast fashion. No Guts No Glory is part-café, part-greenhouse and
part-interior haven which puts on regular craft workshops;
not-for-profit Book Cycle supplies schools and orphanages with the
educational resources they need.

As more and more independent and cooperative shops open, high
streets begin to come full circle, shifting from soulless spaces
back into the social centres of yesteryear. Of course, the pandemic
will be blamed for some economic downturn. Yet, it was during the
pandemic too that our appetite to buy local really flourished. It
showed us the power of coming together. People supported neighbours
in need; thousands of us applauded the NHS; many of us reacquainted
ourselves with local producers in a bid to stand alongside our
neighbourhood businesses.

Building on this refreshed community spirit, we can pave the
thriving high streets of tomorrow. Instead of dwelling on the
failures of mass retail, we should shift our focus to support the
passionate, independent and community-led initiatives that are the
key to rebuilding our high streets. For those of us who are able to
venture outside, we need to stop leaning on our Amazon Prime
subscription, step out from behind our screen and pop to the shops
around the corner. The positive power of community and human
connection is something that click-and-collect culture can never
replicate. Now more than ever is the time to
shop local
, support
buy local

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