High streets

Centre for Cities’ research and analysis explores the challenges and opportunities faced by UK high streets and city centres. Our High Streets Recovery Tracker, launched during the pandemic, used near-real-time footfall and spend data to monitor how quickly high streets in the UK’s largest cities and towns returned to previous levels of activity and what the drivers were behind this.

Our comprehensive body of work on high streets explores the debate from a number of perspectives, reflecting on high street decline, assessing the impact of Covid-19, and proposing how high streets can be safeguarded in the coming years. 

Why are high streets declining?

The high street is often a prominent news feature, with the fate of retail giants like Topshop, Arcadia or Debenhams often regarded as an indicator of a place’s economic and social struggles.

Some, but not all high streets are declining. Their performance varies greatly from one end of the country to the other: in June 2021, vacancy rates went from 10 per cent in Brighton to 33 per cent in Newport.

This is because the performance of the high street is a symptom of the strength of the city centre economy as a whole. In economically weak city centres, typically struggling with post-industrial decline and a low-productivity labour market, demand for high street businesses is weak because of low levels of disposable income. By comparison, in stronger city centres, the presence of high-paid workers creates a market for shops and restaurants to sell to, and high streets thrive as a result.
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How did Covid-19 impact UK high streets?

The past two and a half years have been tough on UK high streets. The restrictions introduced in early 2020 in response to Coronavirus triggered an unprecedented hollowing out of city centres and high streets up and down the country.

Covid-19 turned the performance of the high street on its head. It is the UK’s largest, most successful city centres like London, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol that were the hardest hit during lockdowns and were slower to recover when the economy reopened. Businesses in central London, for instance, lost about a year worth of sales between March 2020 and September 2021. This is because their strengths became weaknesses: many of these places had a high share of workers with office jobs and a wide and affluent catchment area- making them more vulnerable to shifts to remote-working and travel restrictions.

The pandemic has left scars, but it has far from killed high streets and shopping centres. Footfall and spending data now show that most of these places have reclaimed their role as a prime destination for shopping and leisure.
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Does remote working help boost suburban high streets?

One of a number of popular tropes that have been frequently heard in the past two years is that there has been a rise in spending on suburban high streets at the expense of city centres, and that this is due to more people working from home and spending time and money locally.

It is definitely true that suburban high streets have been more sheltered than city centres during the pandemic. But footfall and spending data show no clear signs of a work from home dividend for suburban high streets. This suggests that even when office workers are at home, they are not visiting their local town centres as much as we may have expected.
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Is online shopping a threat to the future of the high street?

Online shopping is often considered to be the biggest threat to bricks and mortar retailers. The pandemic undeniably accelerated an existing shift: internet shopping peaked during lockdowns, and stabilised or fell in most places, but never quite back to 2019 levels- a sign of stickiness of behaviours as people became more acquainted with online shopping.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean online shopping is killing high streets and city centres. Evidence shows that more online shopping does not necessarily mean more empty shops, as what really matters is the affluence of the local economy. And not all the extra spending that is made online affect the typical high street retailers: groceries, for instance, account for a large part of the shift online, while the hospitality industry is much more sheltered. Our analysis suggests there will be life for UK high streets in the future, but many will have to adapt the nature of their offer.
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How can we secure a sustainable long-term future for high streets?

Centre for Cities research has demonstrated there is a tangible link between the presence of high-skilled, well-paid jobs in city centres and the quality and quantity of high street amenities.

To secure the long-term future of British high streets we require a rethink of regeneration strategies, strengthening the role city centres play as a place of production, not just consumption. Policy must focus on improving the skills provision of city residents and making city centres more attractive places for knowledge-based businesses.

“Good jobs and a strong local economy are the keys to saving high streets. Any interventions that seek to improve cities’ amenities without boosting consumer spending power are doomed to fail from an economic perspective.”  – Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities

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What makes a successful high street?

Successful high streets will strike the right balance between different types of use. The performance of the high street cannot be approached in isolation from other functions city centres should serve, in particular as places of work. The role of local policymakers is to create the right conditions for businesses to locate, by ensuring the right provision of high-quality office space alongside other types of commercial uses.

Successful high streets will also offer what we cannot find at home or online, by moving away from over reliance on retail towards the ‘experience’ leisure economy. This happened organically in recent years in high-demand places like London, Reading or Manchester, which again suggests that boosting demand should be the priority; but policymakers can use planning powers and recent planning reforms to help do this.
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Will the promises made in the White Paper level up the high street?

High streets are only briefly mentioned in the Levelling Up White Paper, coined under the ‘Pride in Place’ mission. It states that rejuvenate declining high streets will require a clear focus on ‘place-making, planning and design’. Those cosmetic interventions that seek to improve the physical design of a place may well be important. But they’re unlikely to succeed because they do not address the underlying economic fundamentals- and in particular the lack of consumer spending power. The White Paper fails to recognise that the lack of economic dynamism is the root of the problem, and derelict high streets the outcome, not the other way around.
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Analysis | Homeworking and the high street

A deep dive into what changing working practices and shifts to homeworking have meant for our high streets and city centres

Research | Will Covid-19 kill the high street?

Explore Centre for Cities core analysis into the fate of UK high streets after two turbulent years of pandemic restrictions

Insight | Covid-19 and the high street

A collection of our most prominent work into how the high street has coped throughout the pandemic.

City Minutes | What's happening to UK high streets?

Tune in to a variety of podcast episodes which address and explore the challenges and opportunities faced by the Great British High Street.

Events | A changing high street

Prominent local leaders reflect on the recovery of their high streets and city centres through various lenses.

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