High streets

A week rarely passes without more stories of the high street’s struggles. In the past decade several household name retailers have collapsed and many more suffer from poor sales figures.

Commentators usually place the blame for this situation on two things: Online shopping and businesses rates. This misinterprets the challenge facing the high street and ignores the reality that, in many places, the high streets are booming.

In Cambridge, York and London the high street vacancy rate is around 7%. While at the other end of the spectrum Newport, Bradford and Wigan have the most city centre vacancies, with more than one in five commercial units sitting empty. All of these places face competition from online retailers and councils in all of these places charge business rates.

Why are some high streets struggling?

High streets struggle because of the weakness of the broader city centre economy. Concentrating high-skilled exporting businesses within the city centre creates well-paying jobs and people with money to spend on high street amenities. For example, people in Cambridge, York and London have on average £634 more to spend every month than those in Newport, Bradford and Wigan.

The extra income, created by the high-skilled, high-paying companies that locate in the city centres of places such as Cambridge, York and London, generate footfall for high street leisure and other amenities. For example in Manchester, where the number of city centre workers has increased in the past 20 years, the number of high street amenities has also increased.

Reviving city centres

Many cities struggle to attract business investment and have high vacancy rates on their high streets. How can they improve their attractiveness to business and boost the vibrancy of their city centres?

What will the high street look like in the future?

A strong high street does not necessarily need to have lots of shops. High streets with more empty units actually have higher proportions of shops, while those with fewer empty units have higher shares of food, drink and leisure amenities that do not compete with online retail giants.

Ensuring a supply of good quality office space for high-skilled businesses is also an important component of ensuring the high street’s survival. The proximity of office space to local conveniences, bars, restaurants, gyms and other amenities creates a permanent footfall for the high street.

How can we save the high street?

Policymakers examining the most effective and long-term ways to save the high street should:

  • Improve educational attainment and skills provision for people living in large cities and towns where high streets are struggling.
  • Provide businesses with quality facilities and office space in the city centre.
  • Invest in transport systems to allow better access to amenities and city centre jobs.

Urban living and working

What's the right mix of commercial space and residential in the heart of a city? What can places do to attract more business investment and people to city centres?

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