The first article in our ‘reinventing the high street’ series looks at a neglected arcade in West Yorkshire, which is being reborn as the UK’ s first community-run shopping centre
When the golden arches of McDonald’s blinked out for the last time in Dewsbury town centre almost a decade ago, a slew of high street stalwarts joined the exodus.
Since then, the West Yorkshire town has been battered by recession, cowed by the online shopping onslaught and sidelined in favour of shiny destination cities like Leeds.
But, as the dust settles, community business expert Chris Hill spies opportunity amid hardship. He plans to breathe new life into Dewsbury’s redundant, Victorian arcade in a £7m project that will make it the first community-led shopping centre in the UK.
“When McDonald’s shuts up on you, you know you’re in trouble,” laughs Hill. “But there is perversely some potential: can we build up from the bottom a new indie feel, which makes people want to come back into town?”
Kirklees council bought the Grade II-listed building in 2020 for a snip under £1m, placing it at the heart of the Dewsbury Blueprint, a wider, 10-year town centre regeneration project backed with £50m of local authority and government funding.
Hill, heading up a committee of likeminded local business owners, approached the council with a concept for a new kind of retail destination – one where curated shopping experience is just as important as stores with well-stocked shelves.
“There are two million people living within 10 miles of the town centre,” enthuses Hill, the arcade group’s development director. “There’s a real hope of turning it around – if you give them reason to come.”
What that means in reality, he says, is not simply taking the first person who turns up willing to pay the rent. “We’re trying to get people who don’t just sell stuff – which they can do online at the same time – but who actually do something as well,” Hill explains, pointing out that bricks and mortar stores have to add value to entice customers away from their sofas and phones, for example through demonstrations or workshops.
When McDonald’s shuts up on you, you know you’re in trouble. But there is also perversely some potential
One potential tenant, Emma Noble of bathcare business The Bombz Hydrotherapy, wants to incorporate a studio element where kids can roll up their sleeves and make their own bath bombs. “As well as the practical side, it’s about teaching them it’s important to look after yourself and take time for yourself,” she says. “A bath bomb is where colour and love create magic.”
Noble relishes the prospect of being in similarly creative company. All being well, she could take one of Dewsbury Arcade’s 15 smaller units, alongside an eclectic mix of specialist, independent shops – and spaces for creatives – with rents starting at around £100 a week.
They will be bookended with larger premises that offer food and drink. An upper floor will house nine artist studios. Events will play a key role in encouraging footfall.
The whole project will be run by and for locals, with a community-wide share offering putting Dewsbury’s residents in control. Hill hopes that this will raise £250,000 to enable the team to take on a 10-year lease and fund the operation, as well as to buy two shops adjoining the arcade to “underpin the business model”. All profits will be reinvested.
“We want 300 or 400 people as pioneer investors, and instantly they’re going to want to use the place and want it to be a success,” says Hill. “They’ll essentially control the company, elect the board, and feed into the business plan.”
We’re more in touch with what’s going on in the centre of town than the council. We’re plugged in to what people want.
In recognition of the town’s 40 per cent Asian population, and in a bid to begin dismantling decades of segregation, the share issue will be Shariah-compliant (one of the first such share issues in the country). Shariah-compliant funds typically exclude investments which derive a majority of their income from the sale of things like alcohol, pork products, pornography and gambling. Investors can expect a modest return of around 2 per cent, if profits allow.
Hill is as enthusiastic about bringing everyone in the community along, as he is about establishing a “positive culture” in the new endeavour. A note on the project’s website encourages people who are considering getting involved to focus on solutions, rather than problems.
Fellow committee member, businesswoman Natalie Liddle of Eyewood Vintage, feels that community control of the arcade is vital for its success. “We’re more in touch with what’s going on in the centre of town than the council,” she says. “We’re plugged in to what people want. You only get that level of focus from a community group.”
At the time of writing, Hill and his colleagues were waiting on the outcome of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid, which they hope will plug a £3m hole caused by unforeseen building costs. Works should begin by February next year, with a grand opening planned for Christmas 2023.
The arcade, with its beautiful roof and striking ironwork, is close to many Dewsbury hearts. Built in 1899, it was a popular thoroughfare right through to 2014. And Hill and co don’t plan to stop there.
“There are loads of empty shops in the town centre,” he declares. “We want to take on as many as we can and support indies going into them. This is activism – we’re giving people a sense of being able to implement change and turn things around.”
Community-run businesses in numbers
> 11,000number of community businesses in England
85 %of which tackle social isolation
37,800number of jobs created int he most deprived areas by community businesses
£ 220 mhow much community businesses have contributed to the UK economy
This article is the first in our ‘reinventing the high street’ series. Over the coming weeks Positive News will be shining a light on the people, places and projects that are breathing new life into the UK’s town and city centres as many retail giants abandon them.