Crucially, the relative health of these high streets reflects the strength of the city centres’ economies and their attractiveness to business, rather than being the driver of it. Liverpool and Cardiff have more successful high streets because they’ve been able to attract in more high-skilled businesses than Birkenhead and Newport. Well-paid office workers in these city centres increase footfall and customer spending power. This creates a market for retailers, bars and restaurants to sell to – which leads to a stronger high street.
The proximity of these city centres to each other does raise the rather thorny question of whether one sucks activity away from the other. Undoubtedly people do cross the Mersey from Birkenhead to visit Liverpool’s shops and restaurants.
But this underlines the need to boost footfall in Newport or Birkenhead by increasing the number of jobs in their city centres. Neither is going to pull people in solely as a leisure destination, especially given the strength of their neighbours. And so a better future for the high streets of Birkenhead and Newport will require a focus on the attractiveness of the city centres as places to do business in order to give people a reason to come in.
This pattern is most clearly seen in London. Despite its success, Oxford Street isn’t the only successful shopping area in London, with the City of London and Canary Wharf for example also doing well. The vacancy rate in the latter was less than 6 per cent in 2017/18. Importantly, this is driven by the large volumes of workers pulled in each day, and it’s hard to see how high street services would survive in these areas if it wasn’t for all the office jobs above them.
This means that urban policymakers should not obsess over high street vacancy rates in isolation, but consider retail as one aspect of a diverse economic and cultural offering. The way to breathe back life into a high street is not with a concerted retail expansion, but to make it a compelling place to invest in and set up business. If the number of high-skilled jobs in city centres increases, there will be more footfall and spend to sustain their high streets and keep shops open.