THE future of our high streets has never been at more of a critical stage with retail facing a crippling impact of lockdown.
With long-established names disappearing from our towns and cities and despite a rallying call to shop local during the coronavirus crisis, there has still been a devastating effect on the retail sector locally and nationally.
However, an initiative in Dumfries and Galloway is putting the high street at the heart the community and its future development and believes it is already on the right path to breathe life back into the area.
Midsteeple Quarter is bringing eight underused high street properties in the centre of Dumfries under community control and is in the process of refurbishing them as a contemporary living, working, socialising, learning and enterprising quarter.
And it is in direct response to a community led consultation which discovered the desire for a more diverse town centre with residential mixed in with retail culture leisure and services.
It is now 10 years since a group of local artists took over a shop on the main town square in Dumfries and called the building The Stove. The vision was to find a way to support people to look at the future of their town.
The artists involved arranged festivals, workshops, and even a new town charter and it was felt bringing people back to live in the centre was crucial to creating a mix of economic and social activity in the town.
It led to Midsteeple Quarter being founded in 2017, and is a community owned business owned by its 500 members. Voting members are individuals or businesses from the DG1 and DG2 postcodes and people from out with the town can join as non-voting members.
Each year the members elect a board to run the Society, the board employs a project team of four people supported by additional consultants to deliver the day-to-day business of Midsteeple Quarter.
The group is one of many across Scotland which have bought local assets for the benefits of their local communities – many of them community shops in remote parts of Scotland, whose demise would severely hamper local life. Many of them are members of Community Land Scotland – which represents Scotland’s new generation of community landowners. Together their members are managing some 560,000 of land, home to some 25,000 people.
Scott Mackay, manager Midsteeple Quarter, said: “Dumfries was originally built on the enterprise and hard work of people making, selling and providing hospitality – a prosperous place for the community, a place people wanted to visit and a place that we were proud of. Then something happened. We allowed big business to buy High Street buildings. Local businesses were priced out, and the income generated by the town centre was syphoned out of the local economy through national chain stores – Dumfries had become a ‘clone town’.”
In November 2018 they gained ownership of their first building in the High Street and last year they bought two more properties now called the The Smithy and The Press.
He added: “The pandemic has intensified the pressures on high streets around the country with stores closing practically every week – this situation just amplifies the need for a fresh approach and we are fortunate in Dumfries to be a little ahead of the curve by having the Midsteeple Quarter vision in place and underway. The pandemic is also encouraging previously reluctant owners to sell their properties and part of the recovery from Covid must be the re-use of vacant retail spaces for new local businesses and social enterprises to start up.
“We are now urging local people and Midsteeple Quarter followers to support us to purchase the remaining three empty buildings within the Midsteeple Quarter – 109, 111 and 121 High Street.”
Midsteeple Quarter’s experience and the plans for the future formed part of the focus of a special online event held recently, Community Ownership – Shaping the Future of our Towns run by Community Land Scotland and Carnegie UK Trust.
“With a real need to rethink the regeneration of towns beyond the High Street, the aim was to facilitate a thought provoking and enlightening event that brings together a range of perspectives from some of the pioneering groups taking on this challenge,” says Kristina Nitsolova, urban development officer at Community Land Scotland who initiated this event.
Mr MacKay has high hopes for the future, adding: “We need to bring footfall, a reason for people to visit the high street.
“We’re looking at things like community banking because a lot of banks are closing their branches.
“We’re also looking at things like recycle and reuse and repair – tool libraries, that kind of thing. Some of the buildings in the High Street have workshops behind them.”
“That’s quite exciting to get a different economy into the high street. Not just retail – makers could actually make and repair things. There could be artist studios behind a retail frontage which becomes a kind of shop window for the enterprise going on. Going back to a more traditional high street, with more local distinctiveness. Locally owned with local character.
“Then the other big issues is residential. With all these empty floors above the shops – can we do something with them? Can we convert them into flats to get people living in the centre again? That would help support the diversity of the economy in a sustainable way as they would use the services and restaurants on their doorstep without having to travel.”
Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust, said: “For towns to thrive in the years ahead we need to embrace a new vision, as places that promote community wellbeing. Promoting wellbeing means empowering people, giving them greater control over their environment. Community ownership is a mechanism for this, but communities need support to buy and develop local assets to meet their needs, by removing barriers, and giving them encouragement and resources.”
“Midsteeple Quarter leads this change: a group of local people passionate about changing the face of Dumfries town centre buying and redeveloping empty buildings. Our research and experience shows that more, supported, community ownership projects like this can play a key role in transforming our towns.”