Heritage in the high street: a social enterprise idea

Shops make a high street. When the shops are good and varied and busy, the high street thrives; when they are not, it feels drab and uninviting. The problem is that much of the UK’s traditional town centre shopping space no longer fits its purpose, with most of us doing most of our shopping in out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks (not to mention online). That begs the question: if we can’t fill our high streets with shops, what do we do with them? The recent Mary Portas Review on the future of the high street made a series of recommendations, including that high streets need to diversify – to look beyond retail and embrace other functions that can serve their communities.

It’s an interesting point. So far in this country, our response to saving traditional town centres has tended to be ‘retail or bust’ – if you can’t attract good shops, you get charity shops, and if you can’t even get those, you get empty shops instead. Here in Wellington, its reassuring to see our established, good quality businesses thriving – the butchers, the florists, the jewellers etc – and even more encouraging to see them being joined by newcomers. Even so, we need to ask ourselves if we can strengthen our ‘offer’ in other ways so as to bring more people into the historic heart of the town. And when would-be entrepreneurs aren’t prepared to take the plunge on a new venture, could there be different community-led approaches to making that shop space work?

I’ve got a particular example in mind. Until recently, the Wellington News ran a small retail space as part of its offices, selling local interest books. Now that this space has been successfully leased to someone else, these books are no longer on sale anywhere in the town. Locally-inspired art, crafts and gifts more widely are also notable by their absence, yet whenever they’re on sale at special events in the town, people are clamouring for them.

So, if no one’s going to strike out and fill this gap in the market on their own, how about we do it collectively? It would be a social enterprise, staffed with the help of volunteers on the same model as a charity shop but feeling very much like any other quality independent business. As well as manning the counter, volunteers would be able to offer visitors information about the town and its history. Wellington has a huge body of people interested in the town’s heritage, as is evident from attendance at events run by the Wellington History Group. Not all of them would have the time or inclination to help out in a shop/visitor centre of course, but I’ve already been contacted by a couple of people who would, and others would follow. All profits would go back into the business, and any surplus could be apportioned to local community activities as decided by the ‘members’.

This project could be a stepping stone to wider ambitions to open a volunteer-led Museum of The Wrekin – something that several of us are exploring at the moment, and which I’ll be writing a separate piece about soon – so watch this space!