Executive summary

City centres are places where people live, work, learn and play. They perform a number of different functions at the hearts of urban areas.

These numerous roles are frequently overlooked, with city centres boiled down to being places of retail by the ongoing debate on high streets. By extension, with the continuing structural changes in retail, a belief has taken hold that the high street (often used as shorthand for city centres generally) is dying.

But high streets and wider city centres are not struggling everywhere. In fact, in some places, such as Manchester and Leeds, they are thriving. The main driver of this success is the resurgence that a number of city centres have seen as places to work. The return to urban working has increased the number of people in the city centres each day and had two impacts:

  • It has created a market for entrepreneurs to sell to. While the type of things they are selling is shifting from comparison goods to services, this additional customer demand has kept these high streets performing well.
  • It has changed the offer that city centres make as places to live. Easy access to jobs, in combination with growth in amenities such as shops, bars and restaurants, has increased the benefits of city centre living in successful city centres, and resident populations have grown as a result.

In those places that do have struggling high streets, such as Newport and Wigan, their challenges stem from relatively lower levels of investment into their city centres from high-skilled businesses. This has implications for the availability of high-skilled jobs in the city more widely. These firms increasingly prefer a city centre location – as the dense business environment allows them to share ideas and knowledge easily. If a city centre is failing to attract these types of firms, the city as a whole will likely lose out on this investment. This affects the wage and career progression opportunities these cities can offer.

It also has implications for the national economy as a whole. As the UK continues to specialise in high-skilled service activities, which tend to favour a city centre location, this means that city centres will play an ever larger role in the national economy.

This presents policymakers with two priorities. First, the success of the strongest city centres, such as Reading, Leeds and Manchester, must be maintained. Specifically, they need to facilitate ongoing expansion by making sure there is enough commercial space available to accommodate future growth.

Second, they must focus on getting growth going in weaker city centre economies. This will require a remodelling of their city centres that may necessarily need to be led by the public sector.

Crucially, policy must look beyond the retail sector. The health of the high street is a barometer of a local economy. Successful high streets are an outcome, not the cause, of successful city centre economies. Focusing on the struggles of certain high streets not only ignores the success of those that are thriving but also misdiagnoses the problem. If we are to see struggling high streets perform well then policy must focus on making less successful city centres more attractive places to do business, not just to shop.

This briefing combines the Centre’s research on city centres to show how their role as places to work, live, play and learn has evolved and set out what this means for policy.

The 2018 Autumn Budget showed that the Government is alive to the issue, and the announcement of the £675 million Future High Streets Fund is welcome. As cities develop their proposals and government evaluates them, they must grapple with the findings and recommendations presented in this briefing. The challenges some high streets face cannot be addressed until policy takes a far wider approach than just tackling the decline of retail.