High streets were expected to be an important part of the Levelling Up White Paper. Their performance is often regarded as a wider barometer for the prosperity (or struggles) of a place, and polls have shown that regenerating town centres was seen by the public as a core priority for the levelling up agenda. Despite this, the 103-page long first chapter of the White Paper, which attempts to pose a diagnostic on the UK’s spatial disparities, contains no mention of high streets or city and town centres.
Instead, high streets are (briefly) referred to in the ‘Policy programme’ section of the White Paper, and exclusively coined under the ‘Pride in place’ mission. It reads the following:
“In recent years, the foundations of the high street have been weakened by changing consumer habits and institutional investment has fallen in many parts of the UK. The atmosphere of decline created by tired high streets, dilapidated buildings (…) can undermine pride in place and economic dynamism”.
To respond to this, the White Paper seeks to ‘rejuvenate’ the high street, mostly with an extension of existing policies: funds such as the Future High Streets Fund and support from the High Street Task Force are made available to an extra 68 places, with a focus on “place-making, planning and design”. The strategy is clear:
“A beautiful built environment (…) can also attract businesses to high streets, leading to increased footfall and private sector investment in communities”.
Whilst important, cosmetic fixes will not level up high streets
These cosmetic interventions which seek to improve the physical design of a place – more al fresco dining, less graffiti and gum staining may well be important and necessary. But we can’t stress this enough: they won’t bring more customers to retailers (or only marginally), because the problem lies elsewhere: behind the lack of footfall, many of these deserted high streets suffer from a lack of consumer spending power.
And although the White Paper quite extensively describes the UK’s spatial disparities and the mechanisms that drive economic strength, it misses the clear relationship between the economic performance of a given area and the health of its high street. To reference the quote above, the lack of economic dynamism is the root of the problem, and derelict high streets are the outcome, not the other way around. This is why high streets that sit within affluent catchment areas, where a lot of high-paid jobs in the city centre create a market for shops to sell to, tend to do pretty well.
This means that interventions which seek to restore ‘pride in place’ are unlikely to succeed unless they address these underlying economic fundamentals. Similarly, giving Local Authorities the power to require landlords to fill vacant units by renting them out to prospective tenants is in principle a good thing but ignores the economic reality that in many deprived city and town centres, there simply aren’t prospective tenants because demand is too low, and that needs to be addressed in the first place.
The focus should instead be on boosting footfall and consumer demand
What’s more likely to revitalise high streets, then, is to focus on making city centres a better place to do business, attract high-skilled businesses and create high-paid jobs which will boost footfall and demand for shops and restaurants.
With that in mind, the second strand of the ‘Pride in place’ mission is better news for high streets- even though that intention does not come through clearly enough in the White Paper. Starting with Sheffield and Wolverhampton, these ‘transformational projects’ will provide funding for regeneration in 20 areas. Although not as specific in scope, the plan has loose similarities with the City Centre Productivity Fund that the Centre for Cities has advocated for: whether through investments in transport, office space, conversion of commercial space or skills for workers, these projects have the potential to improve the performance of the local economy and attract businesses.
But for it to be successful in the remaining 18 areas that are yet to be announced, this investment should be targeted towards neighbourhoods that are in or close to city centres. Funding will not be appropriate everywhere and will need to identify those city and town centres that have nascent potential to build on. More generally, even outside of these 20 regeneration neighbourhoods, funding that goes into ‘Pride in place’ will need to be coordinated with interventions on skills and productivity, as opposed to spreading interventions on different fronts without a clear integrated strategy.
Finally, rather than the currently vague objective to improve local pride and measure it through subjective surveys, each of these interventions on high streets and city centres should be clearly designed with and assessed against clear, specific targets- such as bringing vacancy rates down to the UK average for those that are currently below it.