Campaigners are calling on the government to back a £350m high street buyout fund that would bring communities, business and councils together to revive 200 neglected properties across the country.
The Platform Places initiative, backed by the government’s own high street taskforce, is calling on ministers to provide £100m in grants.
The funds could, for example, help transform the neglected Dewsbury Arcade in the West Yorkshire town into a community-owned events space, housing arts and crafts makers. Or it could help buy out a derelict milk processing plant in Totnes, Devon, to build homes, an arts centre and youth facilities.
The campaigners say government cash would help underpin £250m of commercial and social investment in the projects.
The drive is supported by the British Retail Consortium, the trade body that counts most major retailers among its members, as well as the British Property Federation and several local councils.
Other proposals include 50% business rates relief for projects led by community-owned groups, and support for councils to use compulsory purchase orders to tackle buildings that are derelict or have been left vacant for a long time for no serious reason.
Finding ways to help community groups, local governments and businesses to work together is seen as essential to tackling the knotty problem of empty buildings blighting town centres; nearly a fifth of shops are owned by overseas investors who may be unaware of local issues. Pressure on councils to generate cash from rents can also conflict with demand for community-led schemes.
Rebecca Trevalyan, the facilitator of Platform Places and co-founder of the Library of Things, said: “Our high streets are not in decline. We just can’t easily get into the buildings and spaces to do the things we need to do to make them thrive.
“Accepting the recommendations in this paper would be a great start, but the key to unlocking the potential of our high streets is collaboration between all those with an interest in their future.”
Chris Hill, project manager of the Arcade Group community benefit society working on development projects in Dewsbury’s town centre, said a high street buyout fund would help the group buy empty shops next to the local shopping arcade to create a network of businesses to draw visitors.
“In the past, you had top down regeneration where you got money to do up a building and waited for things to happen. We get people who want to do stuff and want to use funds to get hold of buildings for them to do it.”
Hill said about a third of Dewsbury’s shops were empty, and that reviving the local food market and refurbishing the arcade was likely to take another two years because of the pace of securing funding.
“We believe the arcade will open full of businesses, but unless we transform the market and shops and get footfall going they will go out of business. It is a town centre problem and you have got to fix the whole thing,” he said.
Frances Northrop, director of the Totnes community development society behind the plan to transform the derelict milk plant, said a buyout fund would have helped to secure the site.
The project, which was voted for by local people under the community right to build order scheme, is seeking legal means to gain control of the site after it was unexpectedly bought out by a private company shortly before the community secured a deal.
A spokesperson for the government, which has already set up a £2.3bn towns fund and a £830m future high streets fund which local schemes can compete for, said: “Our levelling up and regeneration bill will kickstart the regeneration of high streets in every corner of the UK, helping local leaders ensure empty properties and vacant shops are filled, providing new hubs for local businesses and community groups.
“We’re also investing billions in projects that will renew and reshape town centres and high streets in a way that drives growth and improves the lives of local people.”