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Insights from our High Streets Recovery Tracker, in partnership with Nationwide Building Society, show that Britain’s largest cities are struggling to recover from the lockdown the most.
The centres of these cities tend to have more offices and are more often reliant on public transport, both likely reasons why they’re recovering more slowly. In that context, an often-cited silver lining is that businesses in local town centres and suburbs are doing well because people are spending more time close to where they live.
This extension to our tracker examines this issue in more detail by looking at how the local centres in Greater Manchester are doing compared to Manchester city centre. In this analysis, we have compared footfall data in Manchester city centre to eight surrounding town centres in Greater Manchester: Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport, as well as two market towns located in Tameside and Trafford, Ashton-under-Lyne and Altrincham.
All urban areas in the country have seen footfall levels drop sharply since entering the lockdown. But within Greater Manchester, just like in the rest of the country, activity has not fallen at the same pace everywhere.
When the first lockdown measures were introduced, in March this year, Manchester city centre was the first to experience a sharp drop in activity (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Footfall recovery in Greater Manchester
Source: Locomizer, 2020.
The drop was also deeper for Manchester city centre. Although all local centres also experienced a massive drop in footfall on the week national lockdown was announced, the minimum weekly footfall reached in Manchester city centre was 12 per cent of its pre-lockdown levels. This is more than half the minimum levels observed in Wigan (25 per cent) or Rochdale (22 per cent)- see Figure 2.
Figure 2: Minimum weekly footfall reached by local centre
|Local centre||Minimum weekly footfall reached (% of pre-lockdown levels)|
|Ashton under Lyne||18|
Source: Locomizer, 2020.
These trends persisted throughout the lockdown. The recovery in Ashton-under-Lyne reached 38 per cent early May, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and way before Boris Johnson announced the first measures to ease the lockdown.
In Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Rochdale town centres, a week after non-essential shops reopened, activity reached almost 80 per cent of its pre-lockdown levels, while in the centre of Wigan, although footfall was low during the lockdown, the reopening of pubs and restaurants early July triggered a jump in city centre activity.
Conversely, in Manchester city centre, activity started to bounce back when summer started, but it was a slow burn.
This is half the levels in Wigan (see table below). Overall, local town centres in Greater Manchester are now much closer to their pre-lockdown levels of activity than Manchester city centre, which obviously has to do with a smaller decrease in footfall during lockdown.
Wigan ranks first, having recovered to 102 per cent of footfall, followed by Ashton under Lyne (77 per cent). At the other end of the spectrum, Manchester ranks last – even below the average for similar large cities (56 per cent).
Figure 3: Overall recovery up until end of August
|Local centre/City||Latest full week (% of pre-lockdown levels)|
|Ashton under Lyne||77|
Source: Locomizer (2020)
But not all local centres have recovered equally, as shown by the gap between Altrincham and Stockport vs Rochdale and Bury. The former two in South Greater Manchester are relatively more affluent and, according to census data, a greater proportion of Manchester city centre workers live near them.
Some commentators have argued that the drop off in people commuting to large city centres will be a boom for local high streets as people spend more time at home. But the data for Greater Manchester does not back up this claim. Altrincham and Stockport have not recovered as strongly as Rochdale and Bury, and so don’t appear to have benefited from a working from home ‘boost’.
In order to evaluate the effect of the scheme on visitor numbers across these centres, we compared footfall on Monday to Wednesday evenings before and after the voucher scheme was introduced. While most of these local centres were under local lockdown for the entirety of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which significantly affected its uptake, it was still possible for people to eat outdoors and benefit from the discount.
Data shows that Eat Out to Help Out did have some impact on Manchester city centre, as shown by the increase in footfall on Monday to Wednesday evenings in August (Figure 4). It was not the largest jump – Bury actually saw the biggest increase in footfall – but still no doubt brought some relief to struggling pubs and restaurants in the city centre.
Given that worker footfall did not increase in August in the centre of Manchester, the boost in footfall cannot be attributed to workers who stayed in the evening, but rather to residents from nearby local centres choosing to visit Manchester for its larger choice of restaurants.
Figure 4: Eat Out to Help Out effect on footfall (% of pre-lockdown levels)
|Local centre||Mon-Wed average footfall end of July||EOTHO evenings footfall||Difference between the two|
|Ashton under Lyne||66||74||8|
Source : Locomizer, 2020.
Not necessarily. Although all these local centres have recovered faster than the centre of Manchester, only Wigan has fully recovered its pre-lockdown levels. Other local centres such as Altrincham and Stockport are not yet close. This suggests that even though office workers are at home, they are not visiting their local town centres as much as we may have expected – and overall visits to local centres are still lower than they were in February.
Finally, it is important to remember that we are talking here about a recovery relative to pre-lockdown levels in February. While a rapid return to previous levels of footfall in places such as Wigan is good news, many of these local centres were struggling economically before lockdown. In Wigan for instance 20 per cent of high street units were vacant.
A recovery in footfall has not changed this and, therefore, boosting visitor numbers is only the first step in levelling up these places and should not be the sole priority for policy makers in the months ahead.
More of our work and recommendations on supporting high streets and urban centres can be found here.
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