It was probably just a bit of gentle mischief to offer ‘this was a life-changing experience’ as one of the tickbox options on the feedback form for a workshop event held on a mizzly February day in Bradford, West Yorkshire.  But for me, it really felt like it was.  This is one of a pair of linked reports that tries to set out why, and how it will influence this new website and project, Civic Revival.

Neither is an entirely conventional report.  This, the first is not so much a minute of the proceedings, as an attempt to record some of the people, places and stories told about ‘high streets’ across England both at the Bradford workshop in February and also at the next workshop in the series in April, which should have been held in Plymouth but, due to the coronavirus lockdown, was held (where else?) on Zoom.  The second is a more personal reflection on the Bradford workshop, entitled Bradford – a life changing place.


The two events were put on by Stir to Action magazine, Frances Northrop of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Power to Change, the lottery-funded charity aiming to grow the number of community-owned businesses in Britain.  The Bradford event was hosted at the Kala Sangam centre with the support of the City of Bradford, the Bread and Roses Co-operative, the Architectural Heritage Fund and Co-ops UK.

Stir to Action is based out of Bridport, Dorset and, in its own words, is “building a new economy based on democratic ownership through workshop programmes, strategic economic development, and a quarterly magazine”.  It also runs the ‘Playground for the New Economy’ festival in Frome, Somerset, which may go ahead on 14-16 July 2020.  NEF is one of the most venerable and prolific think tanks in the field of economic reform; its current strapline is: “We work with people igniting change from below and we carry out rigorous research to fight for change at the top. Together we can change the rules to make the economy work for everyone.”

The blurb for the workshop put the problem and the possibilities offered by high streets elegantly:

“Local high streets have gained totemic significance as a bleak lens on what many experience as a broken economic system. With the potential to provide a beating heart for a community – connections into the economy, society, and community infrastructure – the decline of the high street has had massive knock-on effects on public and retail spaces across the UK.  This interactive and collaborative workshop will stimulate fresh thinking and practical new approaches, which communities, local authorities, and the private sector can apply to reverse this decline and reinvent our high street economies.”

Or, as Frances Northrop of NEF pithily puts it:

“Our High Streets are not in decline.  We just can’t get into the buildings and spaces to do the things we need to do to make them thrive.”

The workshops

At both workshops, the first session allowed everybody attending to speak at some length on who they were, where they were from/who they were representing, and why they had come.  Recording the rich diversity of who was represented is actually the main objective of this report, and is in the section below.  Together, they form a snapshot of what we might call the civic activist movement looks like and does.

Also at both workshops Frances Northrop presented the emerging conclusions from a report in preparation for NEF called ‘Democratising the High Street’, and there was a group exercise or ‘design charrette’ to make a plan for an ideal transformed high street, and feedback from the different groups.

At Bradford, there was a talk by Coops UK on its Community Shares model for community-owned businesses, and by Gavin Richard of the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) on their new £15m ‘Transforming Places through Heritage’ grant fund.  Coops UK and AHF are collaborating on the £600k Community Shares Booster programme, which was launched shortly after the Bradford event.  At lunchtime there was a brief tour of Bradford city centre and lunch at the Bread and Roses café and shared workspace in North Parade, and after the workshop there were refreshments at The Corn Dolly pub on Bolton Road.

Frances Northrop’s presentation on Democratising the High Street set out an analysis of the challenges and opportunities, and some practical recommendations for repurposing high streets and making them central places in the development of the new economy.  The presentation summarised a forthcoming NEF report of the same name, the publication of which has now been delayed due to coronavirus.  The report is partly based on focus groups with agents of change/people getting things done in Plymouth, Bradford and Wigan, and partly based on many years of NEF expertise in and advocacy for change in Britain’s high streets, dating back to its 2005 report Clone Town Britain, and beyond.

Democratising the High Street and its detailed recommendations will be the subject of a separate Civic Revival report as and when it does come out, but the following headline findings presented by Frances give a flavour of how the work links the lived experience of trying to get things done on the high street to a broader analysis of our current ‘broken economic system’:

  • Our High Streets are not in decline we just can’t get into the buildings and spaces to do the things we need to do.
  • Current development models are extractive and do not allow for people’s needs to be met, leading to mass inequality and insecurity.
  • Our current government are only interested in funding capital infrastructure and tech solutions leading to huge gaps in funding and investment in the foundational economy, everyday culture and wellbeing.
  • There are many remarkable examples of people navigating around these huge issues but they are reliant on a few forward-thinking funders and are not respected as the regeneration experts they are.

Who attended?

The following list is compiled from jotted notes and may contain mistakes and omissions, which I would be delighted to correct.

Links to some organisations’ websites are provided, and the brief summary of what those organisations do is taken from those websites.  The aim is to provide a series of data points adding up to a ‘pointilliste’ snapshot of the new economy and civic activist movements currently relating to high streets in different ways.  One thing to note: rarely are civic activists involved in one project only; they typically are involved in many projects and can wear a variety of hats, depending on the day.

At Bradford:

  • Kate from Stretford Public Hall. “Owned and run by the local community, open to everyone.  Stretford Public Hall was built for the local community by John Rylands in 1878.  In 2015, the Friends of Stretford Public Hall took over the running of the Hall. Our aim is to restore the Hall into a fantastic multi-purpose community venue.”
  • Martyn and Jack from Bread and Roses, Bradford. “Café, Co-working, Art Room: the place to enjoy vibrant, local and seasonal food, tea and coffee, along with opportunities to work, share ideas and collaborate.”
  • Dina from Coalville, Leicestershire
  • Laura from We Make Culture CIC, Sunderland. “An arts organisation, based in Sunderland and working across the North East of England… we aim to provide accessible cultural provision, which is artist-led and nurtures talent.”
  • Martin from Tyne and Wear Historic Buildings Preservation Trust. “We work in close collaboration with communities, funders, volunteers and end users across Tyne and Wear to rescue, restore and safeguard buildings and structures under threat. Our work has evolved considerably in recent years and we work to achieve strong social and environmental aims through our core ethos of Heritage Better Managed.”
  • Liz from East Street Arts, Leeds. “Making space for artists”. “We have developed Guild to help artist spaces become more self-sufficient and viable in the long term, generating income and reaching new audiences.”
  • Lucas from Fuse Arts Space, Bradford. “A gallery, art space, performance venue and shop in Bradford city centre.”
  • Stephanie from Suma co-operative, Elland, West Yorkshire. “A wholefood collective founded in 1977 by a liberally-minded group of people who believed there was a better way, and actively set out to create it. We deliver over 7000 vegetarian, natural, responsibly sourced products to businesses and communities across the UK and internationally.”
  • Susie from Kirkstall Valley Development Trust, Leeds. “Aiming to bring to life Abbey Mills, St Anns Mill, a farm and 200 acres of parkland in inner Leeds.” Kirkstall Valley farm, a community supported agriculture
  • Catherine and Marilyn, Bradford residents
  • Kallum and Karl from Warwick Mill Action Group, Middleton, Greater Manchester.
  • Jacqueline and Paul from Bradford Council Economic Development Service
  • Paul from Kirklees Council Community Plus Service

On Zoom, but should have been at Plymouth:

  • Liz from Grantham Future High Street and the Heritage Trust Network “A membership organisation run by people who have delivered amazing heritage projects against all the odds. Our mission is to help others do the same.”
  • Jo, Kerry and Lorna from Co Lab Dudley. “We bring together the doers, makers, creatives and curious of Dudley to nurture a kinder, more creative and connected town.”
  • John from Cultivate Cornwall, Bodmin. “Poverty so often poses as a barrier to inclusion and progression. Working at grass roots level in the Cornish communities where help is most needed we aim to take down these barriers… Having grown up in Cornwall ourselves we are passionate about the betterment of our communities.”
  • Julie from Brixham, Devon
  • Hannah from Nudge Community Builders, Plymouth. “A community benefit society that owns, creates and runs activity in disused, underused or unusual urban spaces to lead to lasting positive change and community led regeneration.”
  • Anne from Gillingham Town Team, Dorset
  • Thom from North Ayrshire Council planning team
  • Rachel from Preston City Council
  • Maria from Ealing Council
  • Akil from the Resolve Collective, London “an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges.”

A selection of some community-owned businesses and co-operatives that were mentioned over the course of the day, included:

  • Marsden Community Greengrocers, Marsden, West Yorkshire
  • Jubilee Lido, Penzance
  • George Street Community Bookshop, Glossop

Some of the high street projects mentioned with respect to Architectural Heritage Fund support included:

  • The Haven Community Hub, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex (Age Concern Southend)
  • Pop Recs, Sunderland
  • Truro Community Land Trust
  • Weymouth Area Development Trust
  • Hexham community-led housing
  • Ulverston Community Enterprise
  • Great Yarmouth Building Preservation Trust
  • Historic Coventry Building Preservation Trust
  • Valley Heritage CIO, Rossendale
  • Historic England’s 69 High Street Heritage Action Zones.

North Ayrshire Council is the first Scottish local authority to formally adopt the community wealth building approach (aka ‘the Preston model’), and it launched its Community Wealth Building Strategy on 14 May.

Some of the issues which came up

At the second workshop, during the coronavirus lockdown, the impact of coronavirus on social enterprises and the High Street was of course a matter everyone wanted to and did discuss, but this will be subject of separate Civic Revival pieces and is not dealt with further here.

There is not enough space to report on the design charrette exercise to imagine an ideal repurposed High Street in full.  Suffice to say that good civic activists are wise, positive and practical – and in touch with the real world.  They already ‘get it’ that civic revival is not about the top-down imposition of outside ideas and models.  Using local knowledge and respecting local heritage, culture and tradition is vital.

There is no attempt here to provide a full record of the other issues raised in a series of wide-ranging discussions, but a random selection of points include:

  • All community businesses need capital and need revenue (sales). But there is a difference between community businesses/co-operatives where the people involved are trying to make a living, and those where local residents are aiming to keep an uncommercial facility open (eg a village shop or pub).  In the former, the commercial struggle to stay afloat can crowd out the social aspect.  Declining High Streets have a lack of footfall, or people with available cash to spend, which is why they are in trouble.  But these conditions also make it difficult for a social enterprise to find revenue.  This is a very different situation to cities like London where gentrification, rack-rents and redevelopment can be the pressure on social enterprises.
  • Lack of publicly available information (‘hidden knowledge’) on who owns what is a widely shared problem, and is exploited by absentee landlords and ‘dodgy operators’. Participants agreed with the ask of an ‘open data’ property ownership register.   Asymmetric information is also behind many disastrous, exploitative tenancy agreements.
  • There are of course many landlords embedded in the local community who want to add value and benefit the community by providing property services without an extractive business model, but unfortunately they are not the norm. A means for good landlords to participate in community improvement is needed.
  • Colleagues from Preston and North Ayrshire Councils are pioneering the use of the ‘community wealth-building’ approach in their areas. Although the concept is gaining in acceptance, its not plain sailing and meets resistance from those identified by Frances as ‘gatekeepers’, including inside local authorities themselves.

Now read the companion piece: Bradford: a life-changing place