Five fundamental truths for the Future High Streets Project to help create a legacy that goes beyond funding.

Following the recent announcement of further investment in the Future High Street Fund and to pilot in 20 areas across England, I have been reflecting on my own experience of working with high street communities and the themes and insights that have been consistent throughout.

The universal truth is that no one wants to live in a ghost town. No one wants their community to feel unsafe, down at heel or forgotten. Place affects mood and if a place feels uncared for, it will in time lead to the people who live and work there to also feel uncared for. This much we all know, and it is why our high street communities are universally important.

Grassroots approach and community involvement

The key is in how we approach regeneration and the narrative that drives it. To hope to achieve a meaningful legacy from this funding, we must manoeuvre this from simply a ‘top down’ problem to be solved to a process of learning that is developed collaboratively and driven by the community over time. It’s a complex problem so neat answers are irrelevant and 18-month timelines corrosive. Focus should be on re calibrating where power can and should lie and exploring viable ways for long term community involvement. Done well, this is an opportunity to reignite a sense of possibility and community in a nation that desperately needs it.

The Crouch End high street project

When I started The Crouch End Project (2007), a high street initiative in north London, there was no funding, resource or infrastructure. It all began with asking some simple but vital questions and within 18 months, we had worked with over 200 local businesses and organisations, created a collective high street brand, merchandise, launched a website, loyalty scheme, created a team of young brand ambassadors and overseen over 21 community engagement events. The transformation was in the engagement and I’m proudest of the legacy of possibility and collaboration that continues to this day, giving a renewed sense of place, profile and energy to a high street that had begun to be overwhelmed by competition and stifled by inertia.

Five fundamental insights for the Future High Streets Fund

Over the years I have worked with deprived, affluent, urban and rural communities, and found some deep-rooted truths that have been consistent throughout and could offer insights and lessons for the Future High Streets Fund.

1. Money can hinder; engendering wider ownership is everything.

2. The high street opportunity is in meeting community needs, not customer needs.

3. Take time to listen and learn about the potential and challenges that exist in order to galvanize people’s interest. Believe that people can achieve far more with very much less.

4. Do not make promises you cannot keep, focus instead on the purpose to open debate, build relationships of trust and create a strong on going narrative.

5. Start small, start somewhere creating actions to review, reflect and refine.

Whatever the funding, this is primarily an opportunity for a new dialogue with the various communities involved that will ebb and flow so expectations must be well managed on all sides. This is a great opportunity to refocus energy and involvement to deliver a vision collaboratively that may take time to evolve and take root.

Overall, this is more than investment in capital and infrastructure, this about an injection of possibility. It is an opportunity to ignite new thinking and fresh approach to galvanizing the considerable potential that exists in our communities to rejuvenating their town centres and their broader lives, creating a legacy that goes well beyond the funding.