Open High Streets

Winter 2023 #40
written by
Grace Crabtree
illustration by
Laurel Molly

Over the past three years, the Heritage Trust Network (HTN) have been working with Locality to deliver Open High Streets, a series of events funded as part of the Architectural Heritage Fund’s (AHF) Transforming Places through Heritage programme. Through grants covering project viability, development, and capital grants – known as Transformational Project Grants – AHF have been supporting high street regeneration led by local groups with the aim of bringing historic buildings back into use and, specifically, into community ownership. Stir to Action came onboard Open High Streets to deliver a series of workshops exploring approaches to community engagement, cross-sector collaboration, and alternative sources of project funding. I caught up with a few of the panellists to learn a bit more about their work.


Since 2015, Valley Heritage have been supporting the regeneration of historic buildings in the Rossendale area of Lancashire. At the start of 2019 they became aware that the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Bank, in Bacup, was coming onto the market. The Grade II-listed building had been let as accommodation on an unmanaged basis, leading to poor living conditions. The occupants, some with significant social needs, were becoming a focal point for anti-social behaviour in the town, and the owners no longer wanted to manage it. Valley Heritage undertook a rapid business planning process, looking at the potential uses of the building with affordable housing and workspace being the main priorities. 

As Stephen Anderson, chairperson of Valley Heritage, explained, “around that time, we'd been having conversations with a local charity called M3 Project, exploring the idea of repurposing heritage assets to provide accommodation for young people at risk of homelessness. With the bank, we saw that it was a real opportunity to pilot this idea with a bit more scale.” With the support of a £195K loan from AHF, Valley Heritage acquired the former bank building, and with a £350k Transformational Project Grant in 2020 they restored and remodelled the space into a co-working space – Alliance Bacup – on the lower floors, and self-contained flats on the upper floors for young people at risk of homelessness. 

Stephen and Jenna Johnston, as long-standing members of the Heritage Trust Network, lead the Network’s North West branch. “It takes a lot of tenacity over a long period of time to get these projects moving. HTN provides a forum that demonstrates that there are lots of other people going through the same sort of challenges,” Stephen explains. In 2019, Valley Heritage also became one of the Architectural Heritage Fund’s pilot ‘Heritage Development Trusts’, enabling them to hire a part-time Heritage Projects Officer, the first member of staff in an otherwise volunteer-led organisation. This has also led to further conversations on “quite tricky strategic issues, everything from, ‘How do you represent your building on your accounts?’, through to ‘Have you got an agreement with your local authority, and what does it look like?’ And it gets shared with such freedom, such generosity, which is the hallmark of the network”. 

Projects in the pipeline for Valley Heritage include a ‘closed church’ they are hoping to reuse for overnight stay accommodation; a project around decarbonising terraced houses, at scale and with some novel renewable energy technology; and, more unusually, Lancashire’s history of shoe manufacturing has brought a collection of historic shoes into Valley Heritage’s custodianship, which they plan to use to tell stories about the local community’s past.

Portraits produced by Paint the Change for the launch of Alice Billings house. Image courtesy of Sylvie Belbouab.


Another group bringing buildings back to life is Creative Land Trust (CLT), whose focus is providing affordable studio space for artists and makers in London. There is a tradition of affordable studio providers going back to the 1960s with projects such as Acme and space Studios, but few today have secure freeholds. As Yves Blais, the Operations Manager at CLT, explains, “the general problem that [studio providers] face is that their leases are often only short term. At the end of these leases, the rents are either hiked to a new level that just makes them completely unattainable”, or they might be developed into more lucrative residential space. CLT acquires funds to take on long leases or freeholds, and this secure ownership means they cap rents charged on the studios, allowing tenants to pay affordable rates, based on the Mayor of London’s Artists’ Workspace Data Note 2018 which measures the average of what artists across London can pay, compared with the much higher market rate. 

The day we spoke, Creative Land Trust’s first property, Wallis Road Studios, had just opened. CLT have taken on a 999 year lease, which is effectively a freehold, in a new mixed-use development in Hackney Wick. On the ground and lower ground floors, 33,000 square feet of space has been divided into studios. 

The Architectural Heritage Fund have awarded CLT a series of grants for their second site, Alice Billings House in Stratford, East London. Alice Billings House was originally built in the early 1900s as accommodation for West Ham Fire Station’s firefighters, but the station shut in 1964, leaving the site – part of which is on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register – empty for decades. CLT won a bid to take on the site from Newham Council, aligning with their Community Wealth Building and Levelling Up targets through CLT’s arguing for the critical need to support the creative sector through affordable, sustainable spaces, as well as bringing people to the industry who wouldn’t otherwise see it as a viable career option. The AHF grants have supported the building’s restoration, with a £150K Project Viability Grant to develop and test their proposals, followed by a £100K Project Development Grant, both in 2021; and a £116.8K Transformational Project Grant towards the capital costs. 

“We’re really hoping that Alice Billings House acts as a hub to be a catalyst for engaging more people, and for culture-led regeneration”, Yves explains. The project will see some of the ground floor turned into a public-facing project space, directly correlating to the artistic activity happening elsewhere in the building. “We’re trying to work with what's already there. Behind everything is a need to make sure that what we're doing is impactful for people in the local community.” 

Creative Land Trust received money from the Greater London Authority through the High Streets for All Challenge, and through this set up an open call for an arts organisation to propose a project along the high street highlighting what was about to happen in Alice Billings House. The community activist group Paint the Change was commissioned to work with local schools and artists to develop portraits of ‘local heroes’, with a selection being displayed around the neighbourhood. Also with the GLA funds, CLT are commissioning a high street strategy report to locate unused spaces that could be activated as studios or creative spaces, and create a cultural and heritage programme that responds to local need. They are hoping to work with further local authorities across London in the near future, bringing more historic buildings back to life and putting decisions about local spaces back into the hands of residents.


Union Street runs through the middle of Stonehouse, one of Plymouth’s three districts, and links the city centre to the dockyards and naval base. Over the past two decades, the street has seen a steady decline, with several derelict properties standing empty contributing to a general feeling of neglect. In 2014, the Stonehouse Action residents group threw a street party, and with the busy A-road closed, people saw Union Street in a different way and started questioning why no one was doing anything about the empty buildings. Things took off from there. The group displayed photographs of the buildings in previous guises, playing with typography from old theatre and cinema posters. They bought and renovated a former shop, reopening it as a community centre, Union Corner. 

“We started Union Corner as volunteers and then we realised how important ownership was in order to secure that impact for the community and not for landowners,” explains Hannah, who co-founded Nudge Community Builders, which was set up as a community benefit society, in 2017, with fellow resident Wendy Hart. The next acquisition – the Clipper, an ex-24-hour pub which had stood empty for several years – has since been running as a café and community marketplace. Nudge, run with a small staff of six, a host of volunteers, and, thanks to two community share offers, hundreds of shareholders, now owns three sites along the street and has long leases on another two. 

Along with a partner investor, Eat Work Art, and with grants from The Rank Foundation and Power to Change, Nudge purchased a large building on Union Street. This building first opened in 1931 as the Gaumont Palace cinema, and was later the Millennium nightclub, but for about 15 years has stood derelict and empty. Nudge’s ambition is to bring it back into use as a music and cultural recreational venue for the neighbourhood and the wider city, and in 2020 a Project Development Grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund gave them the resources and momentum to develop their business plans and to launch a second community share offer. This attracted 495 investors, many of whom are locals giving the project a collective sense of ownership, and offering a variety of experience and skills. 

From its beginnings in street parties and small interventions along Union Street, Nudge has scaled up in its ambition, reach, and supporter base, but remains grassroots and community-led at its core. The key, Hannah feels, is “care and local knowledge”: understanding what is needed and what is possible, rather than a “top-down problem solving approach”. All of the staff and board are local and as such are frequently in the spaces, talking and listening; the ‘consultation’ and decision making has been largely organic and responsive. The AGM, an annual point of check-in and interaction for the shareholders, is held as a market where investors can go from stall to stall to hear about the finance or future plans, gaining the understanding that they need in an accessible way. 

Nudge is also beginning to get more of a voice locally, for instance with Plymouth Culture, a board with representatives from the city’s arts, civic, and educational establishments. “I think there's a desire to learn from each other,” Hannah reflects. “We’re interested in how we reduce the barriers for other people [to regenerate their high streets], because it shouldn't be as hard as it is at the moment, and it shouldn't be the last resort.” Rather than defaulting to the private sector for solutions to complex issues, Nudge wants to see locally-led initiatives being the first resort. 

For this to happen, there needs to be a collective shift in community businesses or organisations building credibility, not only locally, but nationally too. For this to happen at scale, real-life examples are key, and this is what the Open High Streets workshops have been doing: giving panellists a platform to discuss their successes and failures, and giving places the resources to reimagine their high streets and to understand which ownership or alternative funding avenues might suit their local context. For high street regeneration to be sustainable and resilient, public ownership and control are crucial not only at the local level but also as part of a broader movement, and this programme has been an important step in building a wide pool of experience for similar projects to be informed and inspired by. Yet the revival of these historic buildings nonetheless hinges on local knowledge and engagement. Digging into the history of the high street, we can begin to imagine a new future. ∞

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To learn more about the Open High Streets: Transforming Places Through Heritage Programme, visit the Heritage Trust Network site here. You can also watch the webinar and event recordings from the programme.

Winter 2023 #40

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