The most significant change on the high street has been in weekday activity- a significant part of which can be attributed to returning office workers
In high street shops, offices and pubs, February has felt like a busy month- at least the busiest it’s been in a long time. Our latest update of Centre for Cities’ High Streets Recovery Tracker, which uses footfall and consumer spending data, shows how this has played out across cities.
Big picture first: overall footfall averaged across the UK’s 63 largest city centres has never been that high since Covid started: by the end of February, it was only 7 percent down where it was exactly two years ago. Weekend footfall is back to the pre-pandemic baseline in 59 city centres, and average weekly consumer spending bounced back in many city centres too.
But the most significant change has been in weekday activity- a significant part of which can be attributed to workers going back to their office desks. Already on the rise in January after the Government lifted the remote working guidance, weekday footfall rose at an even higher (and consistent) pace in February- reaching record-high footfall recovery in most places.
On average, large cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol (those that so far have struggled the most to get workers back) are approaching full recovery: nearly 90 per cent of pre-pandemic weekday footfall is back (Figure 1).
Even the streets of central London got much busier during the week: footfall went up from 44 to 57 per cent of pre-pandemic levels- an unprecedented rise in just a month. It’s now the busiest it’s been since Covid started. That said, of all city centres, London is still the furthest away from its pre-pandemic levels. On many levels, its previous strength (a wide catchment area) continues to be a weakness, as it’s still the commuters who come from furthest away that are reluctant to come back.
More commuters returning is also good news for the night-time economy. On the streets of central London and in many other large city centres, evening footfall on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in February was the highest it’s been in two years as more people stay in town for drinks or dinner after work. This is a welcome boost for pubs and restaurants which have clearly borne the brunt of the pandemic, as our recent Cities Outlook has shown. Table 1 shows a clear relationship between weekday and weeknight footfall: among the largest cities, it’s those that have the highest weekday footfall levels that are also the busiest in the evening. This is a sign that boosting evening activity in cities like London, Glasgow or Birmingham is likely to require even more workers to return.
|City||Weekday (Mon-Thursday daytime footfall), % of pre-pandemic levels||Weeknight (Mon-Thurs weeknight footfall), % of pre-pandemic levels|
Note: in this table, in order to compare weekday and weeknights with a focus on the importance of city centre workers, Fridays have been excluded.
So, what now? It might be too soon to jump to any conclusions, and it is worth waiting to see if these trends persist in the next few weeks, or if this was just a short-term spike (quite possibly inflated by the half-term break in some places). Predicting what might come next is difficult. The return to the office may well stall now, as only those most reluctant and unresponsive to changes in guidance stay away from the office- in which case cities like London might remain permanently 40 per cent down from their pre-Covid levels of activity. But equally, it could be that the ‘fear-of-missing-out’ in the office starts hitting now most people are back.
Both of these scenarios would have very different implications for many high street retailers that are still missing a significant segment of their market, and for the longer-term prospects and strategies for city centres more generally. Can city centres survive and thrive in the long run without some or all of their office workers back, and if so, how? Centre for Cities will publish more work looking at this in the next few weeks, so keep an eye on our work here.
Explore the changing levels of activity within the high streets of Britain's cities and large towns from February 2020 to May 2022.
Cities Outlook 2022 looks in-depth at the state of UK high streets to get a sense of the short-term impact of the pandemic on Britain's town and city centres and the long-term consequences and implications this has for the Government’s levelling up agenda.
While it has been frequently claimed that the shift to home working has been a boon for suburban high streets, the data tells a different story
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