There is a war of ideas coming. Already skirmishes are being seen and battle lines are being drawn. On one side we have ‘business as usual’ and corporate interests asking for tax cuts to boost economic recovery – ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, has urged slashing VAT and national insurance to encourage spending – and the government has advocated for radical reforms to planning to aid recovery. Requests for more ‘deregulation’ are sure to follow.

On the other we have a movement suggesting we should ‘Build Back Better’ and take this opportunity to re-think our economy post Covid-19 with a green new deal, investment in public services and enhanced protections for people’s jobs. This fight will be seen in sharp focus on our high streets. As I write, shops are starting to re-open. Proprietors are anxiously waiting to see if they are viable in this post-lockdown world of socially distanced shopping, floor stickers and plastic till barriers.

Even before lockdown the high street was struggling with many big-name retailers closing or desperately re-negotiating rent and rates to try to stay afloat. What will emerge in our city centres over the next few months is guesswork – will people dash to the shops to frenziedly spend? Or will there be a painfully slow return to some kind of new-normal? Or will the high street recover at all, as people realise they can do even more online than they thought possible? Over the last few weeks we’ve seen mega-shopping centre chain Intu, owner of the likes of Lakeside, Essex, The Trafford Centre in Manchester and The Mall at Cribbs Causeway in Bristol, warn of financial troubles. A staggering 80% of retailers are predicted to have missed rental payments this last quarter. Boarded up shops seem more likely in the near future along with significant job losses.

So, what’s to be done: massive tax cuts and de-regulation or investments and policy innovation to invigorate our high street economies? Well one solution could be to stimulate and encourage ‘community businesses’ to take over our shopping districts and lead a kinder, more human-centred, economic recovery. A community business is defined as a firm that is accountable to its local community and one that reinvests its profits to create positive social impact. Examples include community pubs, farms and shops but there are also community owned ferry boats, call centres, theatres, sweet shops, breweries, energy suppliers, libraries and more. There are over 9,000 across the UK and around 1,800 in the South West. Here in Plymouth a well-known example is Nudge Community Builders who took over an old pub and turned it into a thriving community space. Community businesses have proved to be resilient and resourceful during the Covid-19 crisis with many becoming the nerve centres of local community responses and thus they are much less likely to have closed or be empty. Community businesses are also more likely to pay more fairly and deliver returns for local people. How could we stimulate more community business? First, the government could legislate to help put high-street properties directly into community ownership. Second, councils should develop long-term strategies for their high streets. Third, to build more vibrant high streets, the government should support a new wave of local, community and social entrepreneurship. Finally, we should all recognise that it is the businesses on a high street or in a city centre that give these places liveliness and value.

Ed Whitelaw, Head of Regeneration and Enterprise at Real Ideas Organisation, based in Plymouth, is leading a community business start-up programme, funded by Power to Change, in the city. To help develop more community businesses he said: “We have about twenty potential community businesses in the pipeline. They need investment and more support, but ownership of assets is key. We need to see more assets in the community’s hands rather than owned by distant landlords. Money then generated in these assets will stay in the local community and recirculate to do more good. Communities then have power, control and more influence.”

The things we value the most are often hardest to measure – love, community, health, nature. If nothing else the Covid-19 crisis has shown us these are more important than the economy. Covid-19 has also shown us that, far from there being no such thing as society, community spirit lives on in abundance. We need jobs of course and that’s where community business can help. Amy Cooper, Programme Co-ordinator at Real Ideas Organisation, who works with Ed supporting community businesses said: “People want purpose and meaning in their work and home lives. We want to earn a good living and also to feel we belong. This is the great offer of community business.”

We need an economy that is better for people and better for the planet. Going back to business as usual will only compound inequalities and make any economic recovery more fragile. Community businesses can be at the heart of this revival – they are right where we need them to be on the high street and in city centres. If government listens more to communities and not just to corporate interests, we can: build back better.

By Gareth Hart, Director, Iridescent Ideas CIC and Chair, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network. This content was sponsored by Power to Change via the Empowering Places programme managed by Real Ideas Organisation.

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