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For centuries shops have been at the heart of places. A source of the goods and services that people need; employment; and, less tangibly but no less importantly, creating a sense of community. Over the last 70 years the role of shops has crystallised into the concept of the High Street, an organised, anchoring of commerce in a place. The High Street, its growth, success and demise has become, rightly or wrongly, a proxy for how well a Place is doing.

It’s clear that the changing fortunes of the High Street do have consequences for jobs, tax receipts, community confidence and cohesion, particularly for many of those places that already face major socio-economic challenges. We shouldn’t shy away from this constant change but we should think through its consequences and manage them. It’s why this week the government has announced a new panel chaired by Sir John Timpson to advise on the future of the high street, why last week Bill Grimsey released his latest report on how to reshape the high street and why Business in the Community has created a new Places Leadership Team, chaired by our CEO Steve Rowe. A group that will ensure that business is doing this and making a difference. 

As part of this BITC Leadership Team, M&S recently chaired a roundtable discussion in Bradford with stakeholders in the community to consider questions such as what insights do we have, what solutions are working and in this changing world how do we collaborate more effectively.  

Four key themes came out of the discussion:

  1. Digital – online and automation are bringing greater convenience and efficiency to our shopping experience and making us more connected, but unintended consequences from the new world will need to be managed - people are wanting a deeper sense of connection with others.
  2. Culture & Sport – a sense of heritage helps to form the identity of a community, but not everyone feels they share this history, can arts and sport act as an enabler to encourage people to participate and engage?
  3. Jobs – zero hours contracts, the gig economy and rising living costs are putting huge pressure on people leaving many experiencing in-work poverty, and economic uncertainty across different sectors is putting jobs at risk. There is a need for quality employment supported by investment in skills.
  4. Spaces – community spaces are disappearing meaning there simply aren’t as many valued shared places for people to get together, be that the local pub, youth club or community hall.

Participants spoke passionately about the lack of confidence that people and places are suffering from, stifling the aspirations of younger generations and cutting short their potential. This very much tallies with research we have done at M&S listening to over 200 residents in 10 communities across the UK in the last 12 months. What has come through stronger than ever from our experience and the joint perspective around the table in Bradford was the need to listen to the community, someone made the point brilliantly “people have got a lot to say, they just need someone to listen”. Action is imperative, but informed by the right insight and lived experience.

I was struck by the examples of practical action represented in the room – Anglian Water’s great work in Wisbech convening its supply chain to tackle key outcomes systemically for the community, Nationwide’s work in Swindon to build its new Oakfield Development and BP’s targeted approach to supporting STEM education. Combining some of the early headlines from IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice with the experience on the ground from organisations like the Carlisle Business Centre – you can start to see new forms of economic development in practice which may be the basis of future local economies owned by and driven by communities.

Austerity has no doubt hit services in our communities, but money may not always be the answer to the challenges our communities face. There is a lot going on already - initiatives, practical action and leading thinking – maybe we need a stronger collaborative approach, alignment in the same direction, shared goals and local leadership - so we are more than the sum of our parts. Steve Rowe will absolutely be taking this approach on board as he drives the BITC Place Leadership Team forward, and we’re excited to see what we can achieve together.

  • Steve Rowe is Chairing BITC’s Place Leadership Team - a group of businesses committed to creating thriving places across UK, for more information click here
  • M&S is delivering it’s 10 Communities Pilot across UK in next 18 months, read more here
  • If you’re interested in joining with us on this journey, please contact me on jo.daniels@marks-and-spencer.com.