City centres: past, present and future

Their evolving role in the national economy

The recent focus on struggling high streets ignores the success of well-performing city centres and misdiagnoses the real problem: a lack of high-skill jobs

Briefing published on 19 February 2019 by Rebecca McDonald and Paul Swinney


In this briefing, Centre for Cities has partnered with George Capital to map out the cities with the strongest city centre economies in the UK and identify their common features.

While city centres perform a number of different functions, the ongoing debate around Britain’s high streets has tended to cast city centres purely as places of retail. By extension, the high profile troubles surrounding big name high street brands have often translated into a belief that not only high streets are ‘dying’ but city centres too.

What gets overlooked is that in some places, such as Manchester and Leeds, city centres are thriving, driven by the investment of knowledge-based industries, such as marketing, finance and law.  While successful cities typically feature fewer shops, the well-paying jobs they offer and the increased footfall in their city centres create a consumer market for high street restaurants, bars and other leisure activities. The improved amenities offer in these places makes city centre living more attractive for residents, which, in turn, grows the population.

By contrast, those places that have struggling high streets, such as Newport and Wigan,
have relatively lower levels of investment in their city centres from high-skilled businesses. If a city centre fails to attract these types of firms,  the city as a whole tends to lose out and wage and career progression opportunities suffer.


The report suggests that to support city centres, the Government should treat them as strategic infrastructure projects, similar to transport.

It makes three key recommendations:

  1. The Chancellor should allow city leaders to access the National Productivity Investment Fund to invest in making city centres more attractive places for businesses and employees.
  2. The Government should offer all city centres exemptions from commercial-to-residential conversions in order to protect valuable office space.
  3. More investment in skills for residents in cities is necessary to create the educated workforce that future city centres need in order to thrive.

High street and commercial property dashboard

Use this data visualisation to explore how commercial property, high street vacancies, and office quality varies by city.

View the dashboard here

Watch co-author Rebecca Mc Donald give a brief overview of the briefing.



2019-02-13 City centres - past present and future PDF (4 MB)

This briefing was made possible with the support of George Capital

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