A COMMUNITY arts and development organisation in Dumfries is making a bid to take back control of its neglected town centre and become the first in Scotland to buy back its high street. It hopes to transform the down-at-heel centre into a bustling hub full of urban homes, social enterprises and local small businesses.

Proposals for the so-called Midsteeple quarter in the heart of the traditional market town in the south-west of Scotland would see members of the community buying back eight key buildings from private property owners, who it is claimed are "holding it to ransom" by demanding sky-high – and unaffordable – rents.

The proposal comes as research last week revealed new stores are opening on UK High Streets at their lowest rate in seven years. The Local Data Company, which studied the top 500 British town centres, found there were 4,083 new store openings in 2017, the lowest since 2010. The shop vacancy rate is now almost 12 per cent in towns across Scotland.

The Dumfries bid – driven by public arts organisation the Stove Network and backed by Dumfries and Galloway Council, the local housing association and others – aims to refurbish the vacant and increasingly derelict building in the heart of the town. Formerly used as retail outlets, many of the buildings – which have been abandoned for up to a decade – are owned by property portfolio companies who are demanding tens of thousands of pounds in annual rent despite the poor condition of the shop spaces.

It is inspired by rural land community buy-outs in places like Eigg, Assynt and Gigha, and would be the first "urban" buy-out.

At its launch last week, 300 people signed up to the community benefit company and to join the "Doon toon army", who will also be involved in town clean-ups and events. Organisers hope that up to 2,000 people will sign up over the next year.

Members could eventually buy shares in the buildings if their owners can be persuaded – or compelled under community "right to buy" and empowerment legislation – to sell the buildings. One building owned by the council will be transferred into community ownership by 2020.

Matt Baker, director of the Stove Network, said: "We spent five years asking the same question of our community: what is the future of a 21st century market town if it's not full of national chain stores? We had many different answers but the one that resounded with everyone was the desire to recreate a community in the town centre.

"Yet we are stuck in a jam. The buildings are owned by vacant landlords who are unprepared to invest in them or offer reasonable rents, so they are lying there empty. These landlords are holding our town to ransom. We saw an opportunity to take them on using the community empowerment legislation and to make history. We are taking back control of our high street."

He added: "We want to negotiate with property owners and persuade them that these buildings have become a liability for them. Communities need flexibility and innovation. As artists what we are trying to do is put our head above the parapet and inspire and empower people."

Plans, which could be replicated to save struggling high streets across Scotland, would see spaces for co-working and creative studios, an “innovation centre” backed by the University of the West of Scotland and charity hubs.

Local businesswoman Kirsten Rowe said she was shocked when she tried to rent one of the empty shops only to be told she would have to sign a ten-year lease at £45,000 per annum. In response, she has joined up with another local businesswoman, Leah Halliday, and the two are currently applying for permission to stand a "maker's market" along the length of the pedestrianised high street – a plan that has had overwhelming local support.

"I think the proposals [to buy the high street] are a great idea," Rowe added. "Most people are sick and tired seeing the town the way it is and they want it to change. Towns like Dumfries are now looking to us to see how it might work."

Dumfries and Galloway Council leader Elaine Murray added: "It does depress people if the town centre is shabby. There is so much lovely architecture here but a lot of the buildings are owned by businesses that don't have any association with the town. The council is enthusiastic about supporting the idea that the community would own the high street around the Midsteeple area and I know the Scottish Government is also keen. In these times of austerity we simply aren't in a position to do it all by ourselves."

A Scottish Government spokesperson added: "This is an interesting and ambitious proposal. We want communities to develop the capacity to identify their aspirations and needs and to develop and deliver economic, social and environmental solutions that work for their local area. We will continue to work with partners such as Scottish Towns Partnership and SURF (Scotland’s Regeneration Network) to support regeneration in communities and contribute to the vibrancy, vitality, and viability of our town centres. This has included previous support for the Stove Network."