Preston Benson, Founder of the Really Local Group, spoke at our conference The Future of British High Streets in September 2020. Preston outlined the work Really Local Group are doing to regenerate and renew the UK’s high streets. 

Problem 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s councils focused on developing shopping centres and out of town retail parks. These retail spaces were then sold off to the highest bidder, for example, large national brands and equity-backed companies. This created town centres and high streets that were “clones” of each other, laying the foundations for the downfall of unique town centres [1]. With ever-growing move to online shopping, these units are left defunct.  Preston described Covid-19 as “The Great Accelerator” [1]. Covid has acted as a catalyst, accelerating the trends that were already in motion, such as moves towards online shopping and localism [1].  

Solution  

Really Local Group creates and restores cultural infrastructure through the regeneration and renewal of the UK’s highstreets. They work to create bespoke venues that provide a mixture of retail, entertainment, hospitality, creative and community spaces [1].  So, what is Really Local Group’s vision? 

  • Localism  

“The future is local […] with covid, people are enjoying where they live, working from home, it’s important that going forward that is reflected in the community” [1].  

Really Local Group recruits directly from the community and are a London Living Wage employer. They ensure that each of their venues is uniquely designed, reflecting what the community wants and needs. Before the design of their first venue in Catford they had a stall engaging with the community. This stall was outside the proposed space for several weeks, ensuring that they heard directly from the community that the venue would serve. They hope that the venue will provide a “much-needed home” for “local art clubs and community groups to facilitate their activities” [1]. 

  • Creativity  

Preston stressed the importance of creativity within a community, describing it as a “key point of regeneration, […] artists move in, it becomes a cool place, then everyone else follows” [1]. 

For that reason, each venue has a space where artists and entrepreneurs can work, create and reach out to the community. It is hoped that these venues will act as a catalyst for the wider regeneration of the local area [1]. 

  • Community 

Expanding on the integral need for creativity and learning within the community, the ‘Really Local Fund’ supports groups with social aims.  

“We invest a fixed percentage of our net profit back into empowering the local community through the Really Local Fund which will: support local entrepreneurs; provide subsidised space for the community; and subsidise education/training for young people.” [1] 

  • Accessibility 

Really Local Group aims to provide inclusive and affordable venues. With their average cinema ticket price between £5-£8, it is significantly lower than the £10-£20 other cinemas charge in London [1]. They also offer affordable workspaces to ensure a sustainable creative community is created. 

The group control all of their programmes, ensuring a local focus at each venue. For example, the Catford Mews venue houses the council-sponsored Catford Food Market, which has “become a much-loved local event”. They created space when entering the centre that had 5 food stalls for which they didn’t charge a fixed rent. “These stalls were designed for local entrepreneurs who wanted to try something out or for people who didn’t feel ready to have a permanent fixture yet”.  

Really Local Group founder Preston Benson explains the idea and inspiration behind RLG and its first site Catford Mews.

Lessons Learnt 

Catford Mews was Really Local Group’s first venue. So, what were the lessons learnt from this first project? 

  • Importance of family amenities: “Families expressed a strong desire for amenities they and their children could walk to; young parents were keen for a space to meet others” [1]. 
  • Need for flexible community spaces: “The community was home to a wide and diverse range of special interest groups […] all of which expressed a desire for flexible space together” [1]. One of the initiatives in the new centre is the Refugee Café. This café aims to help refugees overcome barriers; offering work experience, English lessons, social networks and a knowledge of the UK job market. They also work to connect refugees and asylum seekers to the local community, through friendship and food [2]. 
  • A reason to come to the centre: Many residents had no reason to visit the Catford Centre as the range of shops did not meet their needs. The Catford Mews centre provides more than just shops, it hosts events, such as gigs, film festivals and quizzes. 
  • A hub for the evening: The centre’s operating hours left the town centre void of a night-time economy. Furthermore, the surrounding area once had 3 cinemas but as of 2018 there were none. The new Catford Mews venue reintroduced a cinema and evening events such as a local comedy club that has been a great success. 
  • Embracing the culture of the area: The area surrounding Catford Mews has a rich culture spanning film, music and food. The venue aimed to incorporate that within its outlets.  

Preston concluded:  

“Each community has its own needs, desires and ambitions – we must work to regenerate and renew each high street on a bespoke basis.” [1] 

Sources: 

[1] Benson, P. 2020. The Future of British Highstreets Conference. 

[2] Catford-mews.co.uk. The Refugee Café.  

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Really Local Group creates and restores cultural infrastructure through the regeneration and renewal of the UK’s highstreets. They work to create bespoke venues that provide a mixture of retail, entertainment, hospitality, creative and community spaces.

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