The high street is often a prominent news feature, with the troubles of high profile retailers such as Maplin, House of Fraser and Toys R Us generating much attention in the media. The government has responded, using the 2018 Autumn Budget to announce a new Fund to tackle the high street’s problems.

Public opinion tends to blame two things: online retail and business rates. But previous Centre for Cities research shows that neither tells the full story in the debate surrounding the high street. The real challenge for retailers is insufficient footfall in their city centres, due to the lack of jobs in these central locations, which would provide customers during the week.
This is shown by the fact that high streets in city centres with strong economies are not struggling. As city centres play an increasingly important role as places to live and work, the fortunes of the high street in successful places are likely to
remain bright.

Despite this, policy has focused squarely on poorly performing high streets rather than addressing their underperforming city centre economies. There have been numerous task forces and reviews in recent years, and last year’s Autumn Budget also focused on this issue. Most have failed to note that there is variation in the performance of high streets across the country, let alone identify why this is the case.

The purpose of this briefing is to bring together the Centre’s research on city centres. It shows how their role as places to work, live, play and learn has evolved, and that while many city centres are now fast growing and successful, others struggle to attract the same level of business investment. It also sets out what this means for policies designed to improve city centres.

Box 1: Definition of city centres

To define city centres, a circle was drawn around the centre of a city. The radius of this circle was varied according to the population size of the city.
The radii used were:
• 2.0 mile radius for London
• 0.8 mile radius for cities with populations between 600,000 and 2.5 million in 2011
• 0.5 mile radius for cities with populations under 600,000 in 2011

Box 2: Use of data

This work contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown Copyright.

The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data.

This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.