A community-owned stretch of shops in Dumfries has been hailed as a “unique and ambitious” example of how to save the UK’s high streets.
The Midsteeple Quarter regeneration is the UK’s first community-owned high street development and is one of six projects held up in a study looking at the decline of town centre shopping.
With money raised from crowdfunding, private investment, and grants from Dumfries and Galloway Council and the Scottish Government, the Midsteeple Quarter project purchases and develops unused buildings on the high street.
The London School of Economics’ Saving the High Street report praises the ongoing project for its “community engagement and conversation”, and argues it is “a fundamental foundation to achieving the long-term regeneration of the high street”.
Commissioned by the Power to Change trust, the study of community ownership states: “Midsteeple Quarter is a unique and ambitious community-led initiative, one which presents an opportunity to rethink the high street in order to achieve the widest potential community and town centre benefits.
“It shows that by giving the community control over the commercial and creative opportunities in the high street, the challenges presented by the dramatic change in high street retailing can be addressed.”
Scott Mackay, manager of the Midsteeple Quarter project, said: “Midsteeple Quarter is an innovative initiative led by the people of Dumfries.
“It is effective because it has collaboration at its heart – collaboration between the community, public and private sectors.
“The current crisis of the high street prompted us to rethink our town centre as somewhere that genuinely meets the needs of our population and using empty buildings provides us with a unique opportunity to bring creativity into the thought process of deciding their future purpose.
“We aspire to create a new neighbourhood with a mix of uses built on principles of local prosperity and well-being.”
The report, which explores how community businesses can help revive the high street’s fortunes, suggests locally-owned shops bring “stability” to high streets as they are less inclined to close and pull out compared to large corporate firms.
Vidhya Alakeson, chief executive of Power to Change, said: “Whilst changing retail habits may have kick-started the decline of our high streets, it is the underlying issue of fragmented property ownership and disengaged remote landlords that in the end will choke the life from them if we don’t act now.
“Community ownership is vital to the revival of the high street.
“Communities not only care passionately about their local area, more importantly they understand the needs of local people and provide distinctive services that meet local needs.
“This new research shows what can be achieved in places like Dumfries when local authorities get behind communities and help local people to take ownership over their high street buildings.
“The results are stable, sustainable and thriving town centres that are in the best possible shape to deal with any future crisis.”
Dumfries and Galloway MP Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, said: “I have been very impressed by the efforts of Midsteeple Quarter group campaigners.
“Despite setbacks, they have never given up on their goal of revitalising the empty buildings close to the Midsteeple, which is arguably one of the most iconic structures in the region.
“The group have exciting ideas and I believe many similar sized towns across the UK will be following progress at Dumfries as they look to regenerate their own high street areas.
“This comes during a crucial period as the traditional retail sector faces increased challenges from online shopping and the devastating impact of Covid-19.”