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Heard the Rhetoric About Putting Communities at the Heart of Our High Streets? Where's the policy to support it?

02/05/2014 14:56 BST | Updated 01/07/2014 10:59 BST

I've never much rated Brandon Lewis' vision. The minister for high streets has previously argued that the explosion of betting shops, fast food outlets and payday lenders is a sign of a thriving high street. He's in a minority view on this one, as most people recognize there's nothing healthy about the damage being done to communities by payday lenders or fixed odds betting terminals. But, as far as Brandon sees it, it's all about meeting consumer demand. If the tills are ringing all's well in the world.

That was until recently. There are now signs he's starting to realize this simplistic race to the bottom approach is not the answer. In the last few weeks we've started to see Brandon change his tune. His watchword now is 'community'.

He wants the Government's planned garden cities to "contain a space for the community to meet", he thinks children should have their school lunches served in pubs to help preserve community inns and he's keen to draw on the community spirit shown in the street parties during the Olympics to reverse a trend of people leading "worryingly isolated lives".

While this remains largely wishful thinking - there's little sign of any policy or urgency to make it happen - it's certainly a more interesting message than beating a drum for kebab shops. Perhaps the penny is finally dropping that the old high street model is dying. A dramatic change in shopping habits means the only way many high streets will have a chance of survival is if they're redesigned as community hubs.

This is something I've long argued and in the coming years I expect to see online shopping exponentially grow, major chains to consolidate their interests in select city centre locations and out of town shopping to continue to steal custom away from high streets. This threatens to wipe out small town centres all over the country. Unless they start planning and are given the right central and local government support, towns will be cut adrift and left to deteriorate without any sense of purpose.

What Brandon Lewis' half-baked community vision nods towards is the idea of putting the high street at the heart of the community again. A place where people gather to socialize, have fun and meet friends. This is something we should all support. But it won't happen by accident. Political courage and serious policy is needed.

The U-turn on betting shops suggests this realization is dawning. Brandon once said betting shops were vital to the high street, and yet now new regulatory and planning powers are being introduced to curb the clustering of betting shops in town centres. This is long overdue but needs to go further if communities are going to have a real say about what their high street looks like. Planning powers have to look at limiting an explosion of shops that ultimately harm communities and leave them heavily indebted. I recently walked down a high street that had nine payday lenders. Some high streets have literally become a map of desperation.

Plans to convert empty shops into houses desperately need to be speeded up. So far all we've seen is government rhetoric and very little action. We have a housing crisis and over 40,000 empty shops in the UK. This is a massive opportunity that has to be seized.

Then there's the issue of business rates. There's a wide consensus across business that this is a completely unfair and outdated tax that urgently needs reform. The whole system is a muddle and an independent root and branch review is desperately needed. But, at a time when discretionary rate relief is being cut, we need to see more incentives to encourage social businesses on to the high street. Why shouldn't social businesses and community interest companies be awarded some mandatory rate relief in the same way charity shops do?

Bringing the best innovation from social enterprises and the voluntary sector on to the high street could have a massive impact. There is plenty of good practice going on here, from intergenerational networks, specialist befriending services and social enterprise leisure and fitness centres, which are doing a great job in making exercise accessible to all.

By encouraging social businesses to take root on the high street we could start to see the beginnings of a stronger community model, which will ultimately bring people back to the high street and create the buzz that many areas have lost.

But none of this will happen without a plan. And that's why ministers need to make local authorities produce a long-term business plan for their town centres complete with costs, timetable and benefits.

Helping high streets adapt to what will rapidly become a post retail landscape in many towns in the near future will require intelligent policy. Reforming planning powers, business rates and getting the right incentives to support a community model is the start - along with the need for long-term planning by local authorities.

That ministers are finally talking about how to hard-wire social benefits into our high streets is welcome. But it's time they went much further than simply paying lip service to the idea.