Centre for Cities’ High Streets Recovery Tracker uses near-real-time footfall and spend data to monitor how quickly high streets in the UK’s largest cities and towns are returning to previous levels of activity and what the drivers are behind this.
The past 18 months have been tough for UK high streets, with the restrictions introduced in early 2020 in response to Coronavirus triggering an unprecedented hollowing-out of city centres and high streets up and down the country.
The latest data suggests that while UK city centres have begun to recover – to varying degrees- a full recovery for high street businesses is unlikely to happen until their core customers make a return.
The lifting of restrictions and full reopening of pubs, restaurants and night clubs on 19th July has resulted in a boost for the night-time economy, with footfall increasing the most in places like Blackpool, Sunderland, Leicester, Middlesbrough and Wakefield. Larger UK cities continue to struggle, with London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow recording some of the lowest footfall. The latest data, shows that workers are still reluctant to go back to the office, with less than one in five having returned by the end of July. If workers don’t return, then spend levels are unlikely to bounce back, which means that certain sectors like hospitality and retail are likely to continue to struggle.
High street recovery appeared to have lost momentum in the weeks following the loosening of restrictions in April and May 2021. By the last week of June, both overall footfall and spend levels showed a decline compared to earlier in the month, possibly explained by rising infection rates and bad weather. Activity fell sharply in tourist hubs which had experienced an initial surge.
The overall pattern we’ve seen throughout the past year has remained the same. Small- and medium-sized cities and large towns have recovered the most, whilst large cities have recovered the least and continue to struggle as office workers continue to work from home.
London is the city with the lowest footfall recovery (roughly one third of pre-pandemic levels) followed by Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
The reason for this, falls mostly down to remote-working patterns. Larger cities tend to have a denser concentration of office jobs, which can be done remotely. For large cities to bounce back to a much stronger position, workers will need to return to the office and create important demand for local services on the high street.
The lifting of lockdown restrictions and vaccine roll out combined are supporting businesses to get back on their feet, but the challenge of recovering from Covid-19 is far from over. If core customers don’t return to city centres, then we should expect job losses in the hospitality and retail sectors, especially as the end of the furlough scheme is looming. The UK Government must continue to collaborate with the newly-elected metro mayors to ensure that consumer confidence is maintained and that people are encouraged to make their way back to our city centres and high streets safely as the economy begins to reopen.
Centre for Cities’ analysis of high street data suggests that even though office workers are at home, they are not visiting their local town centres as much as we may have expected. Looking at data for Greater Manchester, although all local centres recovered faster than Manchester city centre itself, only Wigan fully recovered to its pre-lockdown levels. This calls into question whether working from home will necessarily mean a brighter future for local high streets.
While it is true that the share of online shopping went up throughout most of 2020, it was not significantly higher: it went from 19.5 per cent of all transactions to 23.7 per cent between February and October 2020. In addition, when restrictions were briefly lifted back in August 2020, bricks and mortar spending returned to its pre-lockdown levels in all 63 cities studied. While online shopping may represent a threat, the story is inherently more complex and our analysis suggests that there will be life for UK high streets after the pandemic.
Our research shows that successful high streets are an outcome, not a driver, of successful city centre economies. Through comparing common features of some of the strongest city centre economies in the UK, we have identified a tangible link between 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. Policy must focus on improving the skills provision of city residents and making city centres more attractive places for knowledge-based businesses such as through providing quality facilities and office space.
“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, Centre for Cities.
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