Dozens of familiar high street retail units across England and Wales, including Homebase, River Island and William Hill have been converted into climate emergency centres – community hubs “for the benefit of people and planet” – after changes in shopping habits or the pandemic left them sitting empty.
As hundreds of councils declare a climate emergency, owners of vacant premises have the option to reduce their business rates payments by up to 100% through leasing the property for community benefit to a not-for-profit or charitable organisation, such as a climate emergency centre (CEC).
The sustainable centres are run by communities themselves and offer a range of activities that focus on both addressing the climate emergency and bringing people together, from hedgehog protectors to church groups. They include art exhibitions, exercise classes, sustainable living workshops, bike repair facilities and vegetarian and vegan cafes.
A handful of these centres are already up and running and have found ways to stay open during the pandemic following risk assessments to ensure they are Covid-secure. Others are hoping to stage grand openings in the coming months as society opens up further.
Some of the empty stores that have either already been taken over for use as climate emergency centre or are the subject of negotiations, include a former William Hill betting shop, a River Island, a Debenhams and a Homebase.
Pete Phoenix and Ruth Allen, two of the organisers of the climate emergency centres, are encouraging as many community groups as possible to set up centres to revitalise often moribund high streets to help both people and planet.
Phoenix said: “In terms of the climate emergency the whole world is on fire. As well as trying to protect the planet, people are desperate for community and connection after the year we’ve had. These centres bring together the energy of younger people and the wisdom of the elders.”
Vanessa Kane, a youth and community worker who is one of the organisers of a climate emergency centre in Staines, Surrey, in a former William Hill betting shop that has been renamed Talking Tree said the project allowed her to pursue her twin passions of environment and community.
She reeled off a list of activities that the climate emergency centre will offer – from a vegetarian cafe “with vegan aspirations” to sewing, gardening, a refill shop and bicycle repairs.
“We’ve got 34 volunteers. Anyone can come and help. It‘s something that people who’ve been furloughed during the pandemic might want to get involved with and can help people’s mental health as well as the planet.”
Tristan Strange is working on the conversion of a former River Island in Swindon into a climate emergency centre.
“It’s a huge and beautiful place and it’s still in good nick,” he said. “We’re hoping to sign the lease in the next couple of days and get the keys by 16 May. I’m amazed by how quickly it has all come together. We want to stop waste as well as offering a range of activities – everyone from Friends of the Earth, soil and hedgehog groups to musicians, furniture refurbishers and church-based groups are involved.”
For Linda Lowrance, who is working on the opening of a rebranded Homebase in Ilford, the centres are a win-win. “There really isn’t a downside to this,” she says. “After lockdown centres like these will encourage people to come back out and feel safe on the high street again. If you have a hundred people going in and out of one of these centres that will also help the business next door.”
Matt Griffiths-Rimmer, of Hadley Property Group, which will be redeveloping the former Homebase store for housing and other uses, said his company had given a local community group a meanwhile lease to operate a CEC until the redevelopment work starts.
“This is our first climate emergency centre,” he said. It’s a huge space – nearly 40,000 sq feet, so people can remain socially distant at events. There are exercise classes, upcycling groups and workshops, eco-solutions exhibitions … the list just keeps growing.”
Bob Littlewood, the Labour councillor whose Seven Kings ward the climate emergency centre at the repurposed Homebase is in, has welcomed it with open arms.
“This is a way of developing community cohesion and giving the community a voice. I think it’s bread from heaven. It’s the most exciting thing that has ever happened in Seven Kings,” he said.