Chapter 3: Social and economic value

Community town centres

Chapter 3: Social and economic value

We have discussed how communities can support the high-level processes of change necessary for high street renewal. A holistic consideration of how different types of value work and interact across the high street suggests that in the future, community participation will become a prerequisite for creating, retaining and enhancing value – rather than being an additional “nice-to-have” or a tick-box to satisfy procedural requirements. This is an important point, as all too often initiatives to enhance social value are dismissed as being secondary to economic value, or even in conflict with it.

The relationship between social and economic value is frequently a tricky and contested one. If we consider individual commercial units in a town centre as discrete and isolated entities, then seeing the connections relies on the operation of individual traders. However, when you begin to consider that a whole place works as a complex relationship between multiple and overlapping systems, spaces and networks, an alignment between social and economic value becomes clearer still. Activities which generate social value in some parts of the whole generate economic value in others, and vice versa. Here it is important to see that community involvement can go beyond shaping the vision as users of the high street – it can also include putting that vision into effect as high street operators.

The following section discusses some of the ways in which these
relationships work.

Footfall and attractors

Footfall is a key metric for place managers, as it is a measure of how many potential customers are visiting your place. Making sure that the amenities and uses are in place to bring people to the high street is of fundamental importance in keeping commercial uses in a high street viable. In a very straightforward way, communities have a role to play here in articulating what is desired by local people, what the issues with the high street are, and
hence what needs to change in order to attract people to the high street. These could be changes to the public realm or new and enhanced provision of public services such as libraries, education and healthcare.

In practice, maintaining a broad mix of different units that can support whole-place vitality means accepting a lower yield on some, as not all will be equally profitable. For some landlords – those who have the requisite scale of ownership to offset smaller gains on some units, and whose business model allows for longer-term planning – this is already an accepted proposition. For example, in Poole, Legal & General are providing 10 retail units to startup and independent businesses with no rent to be paid for two years. 29 The same approach could also be applied to non-retail uses, provided that they meet a community need or are informed by community preferences. Among industry bodies, the principle of retaining a critical mass of affordable units on the high street is now accepted as a necessary precondition of genuine multifunctionality. 30

Livelihoods and the foundational economy

The intelligence provided by communities doesn’t only have a role to play in communicating preferences for new facilities that can generate footfall and support commercial viability. It can also reveal the value already in place. “Placemaking” and renewal does not occur in a vacuum, and it is important to not jeopardise the good which is already there in search of the better. Community groups can provide detailed insight into the benefits of existing businesses, typically small traders, who act as a link between residents and commerce. High streets and town centres with a broad variety of uses and operators can provide a density of employment and enterprise opportunities for local people, as well as the goods and services needed for a flourishing life. The example below demonstrates how community participation during the redevelopment of a shopping centre revealed the existing embedded value and assets within a locality, and helped to safeguard them.

Case study: Social and economic value at Elephant and Castle: Latin Elephant 31

Latin Elephant are a registered charity established to support the participation and inclusion of migrant-and ethnic minority-led small businesses in urban regeneration at Elephant and Castle, Southwark.

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre and its immediate environs, comprising other commercial, civic and residential units, has been undergoing significant redevelopment for a number of years. The shopping centre, along with some clusters of other commercial uses in nearby railway arches and streets, is a centre of economic and social importance for the Latin American community in London. Latin Americans in London have been historically unrecognised as an ethnic minority in policy, not even counting as an ethnic group in official data. This is despite some significant challenges: data suggests Latin Americans are paid under the minimum wage at a rate 10 times higher than the rest of the population, and almost half earn less than the London Living Wage. The cluster of small Latin owned (and other migrant and ethnic minority) businesses in Elephant and Castle represent a key site of employment and enterprise opportunities for communities otherwise marginalised in the labour market, as well as providing specialist goods and services for the wider community. 85 per cent of Latin Americans in London visit specialist shopping areas such as Elephant and Castle.

Recognising that the initial proposals to redevelop the area represented a threat to this resource, Latin Elephant began a process of participatory research with traders in order to safeguard affordable units for local small businesses. The aim was to make visible and amplify the social and economic value already present in Elephant and Castle. Rather than advocating on behalf of the traders, the organisation used a facilitatory approach to encourage small businesses to join in discussions themselves, after a process of relationship building had been carried out. Latin Elephant also partnered with other local organisations and universities to deliver collaborative workshops, aimed at helping traders advocate more fully for their interests throughout the planning process.

Developing a solid base of empirical evidence was crucial. Detailed mapping of local employment, supply chains and agglomeration benefits of existing clusters provided quantitative evidence hitherto unavailable. Mapping floorspace and sub-divisions of units showed how creative use of space allowed for a rich diversity of affordable tenures, as well as access to space for groups who otherwise find it hard to access credit. Qualitative research also revealed the relationships between traders and local residents, providing support and help far beyond the buying and selling of goods.

The shopping centre has since been redeveloped, but the evidence provided by Latin Elephant secured some significant planning gains for local businesses. These included the relocation of traders who would otherwise have lost their livelihoods; an increase in the total amount of affordable floorspace in the new development; longer-term guarantees of affordable rent; and temporary provision of retail space during redevelopment.

The social economy

The Latin Elephant example underlines the fact that there are often relationships between small, locally rooted businesses and communities which have built up organically over time and go beyond the purely transactional. These community benefits can also be intentional: some businesses are designed with a commitment to place and a social purpose in mind. Community businesses are defined by Power to Change as being:

Locally rooted. They are rooted in a particular geographical place
and respond to its needs.

Trading for the benefit of the local community. They are businesses.
Their income comes from activities like renting out space in their
buildings, trading as cafés, selling produce that they grow, or
generating energy.

Accountable to the local community. They are accountable to local
people – for example through a community shares offer that creates
members who have a voice in the business’s direction.

Broad community impact. They engage with a variety of different
groups and deliver impact against a range of different community needs.

While not all community businesses are located on the high street, those that are provide a clear example of how social and economic value can be mutually reinforcing. Research has demonstrated how these kinds of businesses support a range of benefits, such as consciously attracting a wider variety of people to the high street, providing responsible stewardship of local heritage assets, and bolstering local supply chains and multiplier effects. 32 For every £1 spent in a community business, 56p stays in the local economy, in comparison to 40p for large private sector firms. 33 Community businesses can also supply important and responsive social infrastructure by providing wellbeing services, children’s activities, or simply a convivial place to meet.


Case study: Community business restoring the high street: Nudge Community Builders

Nudge Community Builders is a community benefit society in Stonehouse, Plymouth, set up by local people who had been active volunteers in their community for many years. Union Street is the main thoroughfare in this neighbourhood: in the past it was a regionally famous centre for nightlife, with much trade supported by the naval base nearby. However, the high street had suffered decline over a number of years as industry moved away, with several grand buildings falling derelict.

The organisation grew out of a project to bring a disused shop on the street back into use, which was successful with backing from a crowdfunding campaign. The regeneration of this empty shop – now in use as a multipurpose community space – created momentum and a desire on the part of local people to see more vacant buildings brought back into use.

Nudge has since gone on to acquire more properties. It purchased a disused pub, converting the top floor into homes and the ground floor into a new shop. Following this, Nudge purchased a derelict building which has since been turned into an “alternative shopping arcade” – providing incubator spaces for new Black and ethnic minority-led small businesses as well as permanent space for other local social enterprises and charities. Recently, Nudge has even acquired a former cinema and nightclub building with the intention of running it to support a mix of commercial and temporary uses. Plot by plot, they are bringing the high street back to life.

As a community business, Nudge operates its buildings to generate revenue, but with the explicit intention of steering regeneration for the lasting benefit of local people. Nudge has acquired its properties in each case through different mixes of finance – grant funding, community shares and private investment have all played a part. It is a demonstration of how, with the right initial support, community business can become a self-sustaining catalyst for inclusive regeneration, restoration of the high street, and vibrant local economies.


This chapter has demonstrated the range of economic and social value generated when communities have meaningful involvement in their high streets and town centres. Realising this potential at scale will require coordinated action from those currently responsible for managing and regulating our high streets. It will also require mechanisms for communities to be involved in shaping that action. The next chapter discusses some of the suggested models that could enable communities to have a say.

  • 29 Chambers, S. (2021, January 31). Is it time to offer rent-free shops to save the high street? The Times. Retrieved from:
  • 30 British Property Federation (2021). Government plan for uncontrolled conversions to residential will not save our high streets. [Press release.] Retrieved from: https://bpf.
  • 31 Loughborough University, Latin Elephant, & LSE (2018). Socio-Economic Value at the Elephant & Castle. London: LSE. Retrieved from: Hall__socio-economic-value.pdf ; and Roman-Velazquez, P., McIlwaine, C., Peluffo, S., & Perez, N. (2021). Supporting migrant and ethnic economies through regeneration in London: Lessons from community research, activism and campaigning with Latin Elephant. Retrieved from: Supporting-migrant-and-ethnic-economies-throughout-regeneration-in-London. pdf
  • 32 Power to Change & LSE Consulting (2020). Saving the high street: the community takeover. Retrieved from: uploads/2020/10/Saving-the-High-Street-the-community-takeover-Report.pdf
  • 33 Harries, R., & Miller, S. (2020). Community business: The power on your doorstep. London: Power to Change. Retrieved from: https://community-business.