Town centres, empty shops and transport: Positive change is possible

You might get the impression that every high street in every UK town is dying, if you read reports in mainstream media.

But, as ever, the truth is more complex. Equally simple, are calls for governments to ‘do something’.

This trend has been a long time coming and it started big time with the 1986 opening of the MetroCentre in Gateshead, Newcastle. Financed by the Church Commissioners of England, it was a regeneration project on the site of Dunston power station.

It’s notable as being the largest shopping centre in the UK. It also combined entertainment and, until its 2008 closure, Europe’s largest indoor amusement park called Metroland.

Indeed, at 190,000m2 of retail space the MetroCentre is still the second-largest in the UK after Westfield London (in White City). And that didn’t gain its crown until its 2018 expansion.

The MetroCentre is important to study because you need a car to get to its 10,000 spaces, but public transport was extensively re-arranged to serve the site, with its own large bus station and MetroCentre railway station connected with a covered footbridge.

Its success spawned many other similar centres including Sheffield’s Meadowhall, and almost facing each other across the east Thames, Bluewater and Lakeside.

All were built on former industrial sites and offered a ‘destination’ location – a full day of shopping, eating and entertainment – so much so that in their early days traffic would queue onto adjacent motorways at Christmas, while coach day trips to shopping centres were plentiful.

Now, all that’s changed.

The ‘anchor’ tenants – the big names such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams – that would draw people in to the other shops have retrenched or closed.

This has had an effect on employment too. With the pandemic, footfall collapsed and out-of-town shopping hasn’t recovered.

According to the Office of National Statistics there were around 4.4m jobs on high streets in Great Britain in 2018, representing 14% of all jobs. Of this:

  • about 22% of jobs were in retail;
  • accommodation and food services made up 15% of jobs;
  • health, education and public administration accounted for 13%;
  • other service industries (offices, banks, estate agents etc) made up 40%
  • other industries accounted for the remaining 9%.

There are twin transport aspects – those who travel to enjoy the retail parks, and those who work in them – and both have a big effect on the local transport network.

Possibly the worst is Lakeside, positioned almost next to the northern end of the Dartford crossing and M25, allied with busy industrial sites and an inadequate road network make for regular congestion.

Locals might know some ‘dodges’ but it affects bus, car and delivery lorries. And, it doesn’t help air quality.

Does the waning of the star of out-of-town shopping help high streets? In a sense yes, and no.

That’s because in each case the local transport networks and local planning decisions have different effects.

“There were around 4.4m jobs on high streets in Great Britain in 2018, representing 14% of all jobs”

In the case of Oxford and Cambridge, both refused out-of-town shopping centres and retail parks and allied with strong investment in quality bus transport and car restraint measures, mean that their centres remain fresh and vibrant.

Northampton, on the other hand, is seeing its town centre in rapid decline, partly due to a big out-of-town development on the A45 that councillors approved, which hosts key ‘anchor tenants’.

The ‘John Lewis’ effect has also seen Exeter – another city with good park-and-ride and bus links into its heart – boosted. When the store opened in 2012 it had a positive knock-on effect on the rest of the city centre, and is one of the stores to survive its recent cull.

But there’s much more than simply getting an anchor tenant. Those councils which have invested in streetworks – what’s called ‘placemaking’ – to make their centres attractive and inviting, have reaped the benefits.

During the pandemic, a number happily grasped emergency powers allowing them to temporarily pedestrianise streets and put in traffic measures. Sadly, most of them under pressure from locals, have reverted to ‘normality’.

Coventry is a good example of the slings and arrows of shopping fortunes. Its 1950s shopping centre was packed with ‘anchor tenants’ and buses took you to the heart of the site.

But in the 1990s it embraced out-of-town retail, blocked access for buses down a key road to its bus station (since reversed) and removed all buses from the city centre, instead scattering them to a selection of isolated basic stops around the edge of the centre.

Add to this the rejuvenation of Birmingham, with its new Bull Ring development, easily accessed by frequent and cheap bus and rail services, and it’s no wonder that Coventry is suffering.

Importantly, it’s not all about shopping.

While figures vary by town, contrary to popular belief, it’s residential that makes up most of the high street.

Some local authority areas illustrate the extremes of this trend.

For example, the London borough of Islington had 11% of high street properties that were retail premises compared with 63% in Selby (Yorkshire & the Humber). Three London boroughs had 75% of high street properties used for housing compared with, at the other extreme, 11% in Redditch (West Midlands).

The other perception – unsurprisingly given they are so obvious – is empty shops.

The rate of vacant retail and leisure units on British high streets has increased by 2% (from 11.7% to 13.7%) from 2017 to 2020. Leisure units include, for example, restaurants, bar, beauty services, gyms.

2020 saw the biggest increase in high street vacancies since 2013.

Of the 13.7% of retail and leisure properties vacant on high streets in 2020, 35% had been vacant for less than one year, and 30% had been vacant for more than three years. The Local Data Company (LDC) forecasts that vacancy rates will continue to rise in high streets, shopping centres and retail parks in 2021.

High streets have a lower proportion of vacant premises compared to shopping centres, which have been the most impacted by the pandemic in terms of store closures.

In terms of types of store, comparison goods stores (for example selling fashion and household items, as opposed to groceries and convenience stores) have consistently had far higher rates of vacancies compared with other types of stores.

The following chart shows retail and leisure vacancies by region in 2019 and 2020 as reported by the LDC. The chart includes vacancies in shopping centres, high streets and retail parks.

London had the lowest rate of vacancies, with 10% of retail and leisure properties vacant in 2020.

The North East had the highest proportion of vacant units in 2020 (20%). Wales saw the biggest change in the number of vacant units, with vacancy rates rising 2.6% between 2019– 2020.

It would appear that the changes brought about in behaviour by the pandemic are similar to other sectors (including public transport) in that it merely accelerated existing trends – such as that towards online shopping – that had been underway for some years.

Online sales saw huge growth at the onset of the pandemic and have remained high ever since including during periods when non-essential retail reopened.

Internet sales have been above 28% of all retail sales since April 2020, up from 20% before the pandemic.

Retail sales, particularly in clothing stores, rebounded strongly with the opening of non-essential retail in April 2021 leading to optimism for continued sales recovery in 2021

So, it’s time to get out the crystal ball. The Local Data Company (LDC) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have suggested a trend towards more localised shopping habits emerged during the pandemic, benefiting village and smaller town high streets and independent local retailers.

PwC has pointed to early survey evidence in March 2021 suggesting that consumers said they would continue to shop locally when restrictions are lifted.

The LDC reported that independent retail and leisure stores fared better during the pandemic in terms of store closures compared to chain businesses, continuing a trend that has been in place for some years.

It says that village locations (with smaller retail offerings and higher proportions of independent businesses) were more resilient in 2020, with store vacancies increasing by 0.4%, compared to 2.5% for city centres and 1.6% on average across all locations.

The LDC described the activity across independent businesses as a cause for optimism for high streets, stating this could “mark a first step towards more diverse and resilient high streets across the country”.

The Centre for Cities think tank has been monitoring consumer spending and footfall (using mobile phone and google mobility data) across British high streets during the pandemic in their “High Street Recovery Tracker”.

In March 2021 the think tank reported that larger city centres recovered less of their pre-pandemic footfall levels compared to smaller town centres. This was attributed to greater numbers of office workers working from home away from the city in larger areas.

Government support schemes during the lockdown periods mean that the full impact of the pandemic in terms of store closures has not yet occurred.

Moreover, it is also too early to say whether changes in customer behaviour seen during the pandemic – such as trends towards online and local shopping – are temporary or represent long-term structural changes.

“It is also too early to say whether changes in customer behaviour seen during the pandemic – such as trends towards online and local shopping – are temporary or represent long-term structural changes”

Some, myself included, argue that the shift to online shopping does not signal ‘doom and gloom’ for traditional high street retail, but that businesses must adapt their offers to customers.

The availability of property due to increased vacancies and potentially lower rental costs creates opportunities for new entrants and the expansion for brands that are growing or adapting to new business models.

The Centre for Cities argues that while online shopping may represent a threat to the high street, the challenges are more complex.

It says: “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.”

The Centre argues that there is little correlation between the proportion of retail sales spent online and store vacancy rates in an area, but that there is a correlation between lower store vacancies in areas with higher wages and skilled jobs for local residents – i.e. more consumer spending power.

There’s not space here to go into all the various government reports, action funds and debate about business rates and rents (see link below).

What is clear is that transport and town centres are closely linked, and the car dependency that most out-of-town shopping requires, goes against net-zero goals.

“Planning policies and decisions should help create conditions in which businesses can invest, expand and adapt and that planning policies should set out a clear economic vision and strategy to support local and inward investment.”

That’s a quote from the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which provides the background against which Local Plans are drawn up and applications for planning permission are determined.

And here lies the key.

It is wholly in the gift of elected councillors to shape their towns and cities. The decisions they make about land use, planning and transport are crucial to whether their High Streets thrive. And, sometimes, that involves tough decisions. But that’s politicis.

Further Reading: Town centre regeneration

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