This report was informed via more than 30 video-conference interviews with experts from the private sector and academia, council officers and business improvement district members from across England. This was supplemented by desktop research using existing literature and evidence.
As part of this work Trajectory has identified a checklist of 35 pre-pandemic trends across the six ‘PESTLE’ (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) categories that will impact high streets going forward.
Changing role of high streets and town centres
Social and experiential are the predominant uses of high streets, as retail and functional needs are increasingly met online.
Immediate impact of the pandemic: Businesses on the high streets were among the most adversely impacted by the pandemic, and it’s not just retail that has suffered. The economic damage caused by the pandemic will last beyond the public health emergency.
Permanent change beyond the pandemic: Patterns of work and commuting have, and will remain, changed – with implications for the future of high streets. The pandemic will prompt a permanent shift in the home location decisions of many families, and domestic tourism and staycationing will remain above pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic has reinvigorated interest in community and what’s local, while technology has proven capable of replacing in person and physical connections in many aspects of daily life.
Challenges for high streets
Implications of pre-pandemic trends: Store closures pre-dated the pandemic, with many high streets facing the blight of large voids. High streets will need to adapt with a new experiential offer to entice visitors back and be prepared for the long-term impact of new technology.
Differential impact of the pandemic: High streets in rural towns and out-of-town employment-cluster areas will need to encourage new footfall from residential developments, new employers, and a wider area, to replace lost spend from commuters. High streets in urban central business districts & city and major town centres need to overcome compounded challenges by developing an offer to draw in non-commuters and increase spend per visit. Many residents in villages, green belt and peripheral settlements with office-based jobs are continuing with hybrid working in the near-term, and high streets in these locations will need to meet the demands of former commuters. With fewer commuters leaving home during the day, high streets in feeder towns and suburban centres stand to benefit from increased footfall and a new higher spending weekday demographic. Many high streets in tourist ‘honeypots’ with coastal, heritage, cultural or natural assets have benefited from the increase in domestic tourism and staycations during the pandemic
On the horizon: Technological advancements threaten to widen the digital divide between generations and groups from different socio-economic backgrounds. Tied to risks of digital divides, our population is ageing, with growing demand for healthcare and social services too.
Resilient high streets of the future
Resilient high streets are experiential destinations and should offer users experiences that go beyond purely retail or functional-oriented activities.
Resilient high streets have flexibility built in: Rapid technological changes offer challenges and opportunities for high streets. Flexibility can be integrated into the high street through evidence-based strategy, policy amendments, and up-to-date awareness of community needs and demands. Resilient high streets are green, and local authorities should consider transport, green spaces, and low-carbon supply chains in any environmental strategy.
Resilient high streets make sense in their local context: Local authorities should design policy interventions based on a contextual understanding of the high street in question, and the needs and demands of its users. Community engagement can be used to build important partnerships and provide valuable insights which can support the design and delivery of projects.
Councils’ contribution to successful high streets
Strategic evidence-based approach: High street resilience should be guided by medium- and long-term strategy, founded in quantitative and qualitative evidence. Prior to developing a strategy, it is important that local authorities understand the economic and social context of local high streets and have relevant staff expertise. Planning policies, such as local plans and neighbourhood plans, can be used as a binding foundation for a high street strategy, safeguarding green spaces and heritage assets. Policy interventions should be consistent with the council’s high street strategy.
Financial viability and social benefit: As with any investment, projects designed to strengthen and reinvigorate the high street need to be financially viable and deliver clear social benefit. To increase the financial viability of socially beneficial interventions, sources of government funding are available (such as from the Levelling Up, Community Renewal, Shared Prosperity and Active Travel Funds), and there are mechanisms for sharing risk. Local authorities can invest in interventions which could have a significant impact on high streets, but poor financial planning risks undermining potential benefits.
Engaging and empowering stakeholders: Engaging with community organisations and residents can facilitate interaction with hard-to-reach groups and provide important insight when designing interventions. Local businesses, both independents and chains, will be able to provide commercial insights about footfall, consumer preferences, and supply chain concerns. Engagement with community stakeholders can help to identify and address skills gaps in the high street.
Drivers of change
This section covers pre-pandemic trends impacting on high streets, the changing role of high streets and town centres, the immediate impact of the pandemic and permanent change beyond the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic trends impacting on high streets
There remain broad socio-economic trends from before the pandemic that will impact on high streets.
Trajectory has identified a checklist of 35 pre-pandemic trends across the six PESTLE categories that will impact high streets going forward. In this context, PESTLE analysis provides a structure for organisations to explore the key drivers shaping the future of high streets and how this might impact strategic decision-making or actions.
- Levelling up – Town centres and high streets, may have access to greater funding and other socio-cultural benefits. However, high streets might be deprioritised as compared with larger infrastructure projects if the levelling up agenda is squeezed.
- Culture wars – Culture wars describe the battles within and across nations on social issues. High street businesses may find themselves increasingly drawn into culture war debates and local authorities risk criticism if their decisions appear to support one side of a culture war issue over another
- Purposeful town centres – Political planning and government funding is increasingly taking a more holistic and community-oriented approach to town centres and high streets. The success of this approach requires new and altered relationships between businesses, local authorities, and communities.
- Government funding – A substantial amount of money has been made available for high street renovation and expansion across the United Kingdom but rising government debt might cause government promises to be revoked. If funding is cut, high streets risk being unequipped to meet consumer demands.
- New patterns of work – People are more likely to work during evenings and weekends; and with office-based workers, remote and homeworking has become more popular. Changes in the geographic location of workers will affect how commercial centres, local high streets and town centres are used.
- Online stores with offline presence – Large online stores, such as Amazon, are increasingly looking to make the shift into brick-and-mortar retail. Such moves could bring new investment to high streets and town centres but may also buck the trend towards more community-oriented and localised high streets.
- Agility vs resilience – Globalisation and modernisation has fostered a shift towards ‘just in time’ business practices that prioritise reactivity and efficiency over resilience and contingency planning. Disruption to centralised supply chains may lead to store closures and more transient high street environments for consumers.
- Regional inequality and the multispeed economy – The difference between regional economic growth rates, funding and consumer spending within the United Kingdom are large and unlikely to disappear any time soon. One-size-fits-all approaches for high streets and town centres will remain ineffective.
- Change in supply of commercial space – Commercial space in town centres and high streets has previously been prevalent to the point of oversupply, but this is changing as unused space has been repurposed. This could raise the low barriers to entry that new high street businesses currently benefit from.
- Chain vs independent – Downsizing or collapse of major chain brands has created new opportunities for smaller businesses to increase their relative presence with support from consumer shifts towards localism and more boutique offerings.
- Evolution of money – Though still popular in some areas, cash is steadily being replaced by other cashless forms of transaction. This benefits businesses and many consumers by reducing overall money-handling costs but risks financially excluding people without access to alternative forms of payment.
- The demise of distance – Advances in telecommunications have contributed to a decline in the importance of distance in everyday life, and this has changed where people live, work, and spend their free time. Consumers are looking to their local high streets for a more diverse offerings and suburban town centres are likely to grow and flourish.
- The play society – The relative importance of leisure to individuals is steadily rising with economic prosperity. As consumers demand more experiences and entertainment, high streets and town centres are likely to become increasingly dominated by leisure and hospitality options.
- On demand expectations – Consumers expect things faster than ever and this impacts how long they are willing to wait for goods and services. In some sectors, on demand services compete directly with high street and town centre offerings, which may incentivise innovation among traditional brick-and-mortar shops.
- Deregulation of life – For years, consumers have enjoyed more freedom over what they do, and when and how they do it due to changing social attitudes, legislation, and technology. City centre high streets have become used to the deregulation of life but as shifts in where we live and work continue, others will need to follow suit.
- 4th place and digital culture – Where the 3rd place is an accessible environment for socialisation and leisure away from work and home, digital technology is now creating 4th places that mimic 3rd places by connecting people online. High streets and town centres are likely to find themselves in competition with virtual experiences, such as streaming platforms, that replicate once-physical offerings.
- Ageing society – The United Kingdom’s ageing population has implications for the share of economically active people in the country and will likely result in more older people than the country has seen before. This will change the demands users place on high streets and town centres in terms of what is offered and its accessibility.
- Changing meaning of age – The life stage we inhabit at different ages is changing: childhood, parenthood and old age stages are shortening while teenage, pre-family young adult, post-family stages are extending. This will likely increase the number of relatively cash-wealthy consumers looking for leisure and hospitality options.
- Multi-use spaces – With rising demand for more than just shopping attractions on high streets and town centres, areas that provide multiple utilities to users will likely be welcomed by many. Change will not be free, but recentring high streets as community spaces will likely bring financial benefits.
- Increased diversity – The United Kingdom has been becoming more ethnically diverse for decades, and this is set to accelerate. Local authorities and businesses will need to foster culturally diverse spaces without side-lining communities, particularly in the context of debates around gentrification and cultural appropriation.
- Self vs stuff – Businesses focused on self-improvement and the experience economy such as beauty, leisure facilities, and hospitality venues will continue to boom, as British consumers turn away from prioritising material purchases. This has been driving a shift in the type of stores and venues present on high streets.
- Automation – With more tasks being handed over to artificial intelligence and robotics, the workforce might shrink or be redeployed to human-specific roles. The retail sector in particular looks set to embrace automation, and communities could see increased demand for leisure spaces if the workforce is allowed to shrink.
- AI – Machines with artificial intelligence (AI) are capable of analysing and learning from massive datasets. While it remains to be seen how quickly AI will proliferate, local authorities and businesses could benefit from high street customer-data tracking and analysis, and back-of-house organisational utility.
- Internet of things – Objects embedded with technologies that allow them to connect and exchange data with other devices in a network could revolutionise high streets and town centres by making them more dynamic and accessible. However, good 5G connectivity and cybersecurity will be essential if it is to reach its full potential.
- Virtual realities – Complete virtual realities will remain largely in private spaces, but augmented reality could be used by high streets and town centres to improve accessibility and interact with users and would-be visitors. Widespread adoption is still a long way off as it remains expensive and dependent on other technologies.
- Digital divides – Greater digital proficiency and the attraction of new technologies will likely foster a tech-involved evolution of high streets and town centres. While this will present many benefits, at the same time those with less access to or comfortability with technology should not be forgotten.
- ‘Fast fail factories’ and adaptability – High business turnover rates are common on high streets as competition among landlords ensures low barriers to entry for small businesses which often fail to survive. This makes for adaptable town centres, but may prevent community-centred and long-lasting high streets from developing.
- Accessibility – With an ageing population and growing awareness of the needs of older and disabled individuals, efforts made to improve accessibility will help to broaden the market and increase footfall. This will not go unnoticed by the public, and will help to keep high streets and their businesses ahead of changing legislation of accessibility mandates.
- Extended hours – Later opening hours for high street businesses, and extended hours on Sundays and bank holidays may be controversial for some. But they could boost sales and see high streets and town centres become cultural and leisure centres for their communities later into the evening.
- Private/public partnerships – As partnerships between business and governments or organisations become more common, local governance has greater influence. However, this may also give greater weight to disagreements between how the future of the high street is viewed by local authorities and businesses or private landlords.
- Ethics and Environment
- Green consumption – Changing consumer attitudes toward climate change will likely increase preferences for plant-based foods, locally-produced goods, and low-carbon transportation. However, the extent of behaviour change will depend on the costs of moving away from current behaviours.
- Shades of green – Individuals will continue to value environmental and ethical credentials differently even as the overall impact of such issues rises. High streets and town centres with younger users will need to prioritise low-carbon changes, whilst others may be encouraged to focus on different demands for now.
- Pedestrianisation – Pedestrianisation can be helpful to turn high streets and town centres into more community-oriented areas, but care needs to be taken to avoid making them inaccessible for older or disabled users.
- Purpose-led business – Purpose-led brands are likely to thrive on high streets, and even those without explicit national or global social purposes will likely benefit from engaging with local community needs. Not all consumers will care, particularly in poorer areas where financial concerns may trump ethical ones.
- Community ownership – Finding ways to involve communities as stakeholders in decision-making processes can benefit communities and businesses by making high streets more holistic and community-centred. While community ownership of high streets is still relatively uncommon, community involvement is on the rise.
Trajectory have produced a trends checklist tool for councils, town managers, developers and anyone wanting to think about the future of their high street or town centre, which you can access via the link below.
Changing role of high streets and town centres
The role of high streets and town centres has evolved over the decades in response to current and past PESTLE trends, and the resulting changing needs and demands of local consumers and employers.
High streets and town centres broadly satisfy visitors’ needs in relation to a combination of four types of usage:
- retail – acquisition of goods and services
- functional – administrative activities, such as banking, postal and medical services
- social – gathering and meeting with other people
- experiential – leisure, recreation and entertainment activities.
Social and experiential are the predominant uses of high streets, as retail and functional needs are increasingly met online. As Exhibit 1 shows, over the decades the relative importance of each of these uses has changed. In the 1960s and 70s, the high street was dominated by retail and functional use. Since then, these roles have been eroded by, initially, telephone-based services and purchasing as well as out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets. In more recent years, internet services and shopping, increasing digitalisation, and home delivery facilitated by real time computerised logistics systems have compounded the trend. Meanwhile, social interaction and social, leisure and pleasure experiences have become more important and, arguably, these uses have overtaken the others.
Alongside this shift in how they are used, we have seen a change in the extent to which high streets and town centres are necessary to the fulfilment of these consumer uses. In the mid-twentieth century, the high street was essential to many retail and functional needs of consumers; there was little or no choice. But over time the same trends that drove a shift in the uses of the high street, led to a gradual decline in the number of uses for which it is indispensable. In the 2020s, the use of the high street is discretionary for many of its users. There are alternative locations (both physical and digital) where retail, functional, social and experiential activities can take place. High streets have to compete with each other, but also with these alternatives, for footfall and spend.
In this context, property use on high streets and in town centres has evolved. As the national economy has shifted away from manufacturing, the high street has become home not only to consumer services providers but also to office workers. Meanwhile, the twentieth century phenomenon of urban exodus had, at least up to the pandemic, reversed; more households had been choosing to live centrally – on or close to high streets.
Immediate impact of the pandemic
COVID-19 had and is still having a significant negative impact on footfall and revenues right across England’s high streets and town centres.
Businesses on the high streets were among the most adversely impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 and the government restrictions that ensued created a recession in the United Kingdom that was unlike any seen before. Environment and Planning B research measuring the pandemic's effect on town centres showed that footfall on some high streets fell by three quarters during the first lockdown in March 2020. According to ONS analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on UK hospitality, consumer spending on hospitality started to increase in May 2021 but even then remained at less than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Despite government support for businesses in affected sectors, a BBC report on shop closures revealed that more than 8,700 chain stores shut in British high streets, shopping centres and retail parks in the first six months of this year, compared with just 3,488 new openings.
It’s not just retail that has suffered. The hair and beauty industry, for example, has a presence on almost every high street. It is a large employer, with a high proportion of self-employed, micro and small businesses. They saw an average loss in turnover of 45 per cent in 2020. Out of lockdown, social distancing measures meant that, even when open, they were operating at around 70 per cent pre-pandemic capacity. Many in the industry are now acutely vulnerable to failure; at the beginning of 2021 three-fifths of businesses had no cash reserves, according to a report for the National Health and Beauty Foundation.
The economic damage caused by the pandemic will last beyond the public health emergency. While all signs point to a strong recovery, scarring is likely in certain sectors and communities, which could exacerbate existing inequalities. At the time of writing, some restrictions have been reintroduced and additional support measures announced as the government looks to deal with rising cases of the Omicron variant. Longer term growth prospects as the economic after effects of COVID-19 (especially inflationary impacts) risk driving economic downturns in the future. In more stable times, real incomes tend to rise faster than inflation. But high inflation as seen in higher energy bills and prices on groceries – coupled with reduced universal credit payments and increased national insurance taxes – will squeeze real incomes. Fears around higher inflation may well cause consumers to be more conservative in their willingness to spend in high street stores and town centres, regardless of whether or not that inflation actually manifests.
Permanent change beyond the pandemic
COVID-19 will likely lead to permanent change on the high street.
Patterns of work and commuting have, and will remain, changed – with implications for the future of high streets. While being forced to work from home during the height of the pandemic had its drawbacks for many former office workers, it also demonstrated to some individuals and teams the benefits of using different technologies, working more flexibly and not being tied to traditional office hours and locations. As restrictions have eased, numerous businesses have turned to some form of hybrid working system that allows teams to meet with each other in person when required, but also offers employees the flexibility that many of them desire. This means that fewer workers are commuting five days per week. Although the levels of home, remote and hybrid working will not stay as high as during lockdown, they are likely to remain above pre-pandemic rates permanently.
The pandemic will prompt a permanent shift in the home location decisions of many families. With more employees having access to home, remote and hybrid working, they can choose to live further away from their employers’ premises. Outer suburban, satellite and rural will be more attractive for those who work in previously metropolitan jobs but want more space and less urban lifestyle.
Domestic tourism and staycationing to remain above pre-pandemic levels. International travel rules and restrictions were particularly tricky to navigate during the pandemic, with uncertainty remaining even when communities in the United Kingdom were relatively open. This meant that many chose to stay closer to home when they ordinarily might have ventured abroad. Temporarily boosted by the COVID-19 induced influx of relatively wealthy domestic travellers, hospitality and recreation businesses in tourist towns were given the chance to prove themselves worthy alternatives to foreign destinations. While by no means likely to substitute the majority of international vacations as countries open up again, the newly reinvigorated domestic tourism market looks set to remain larger than prior to the pandemic going forward.
The pandemic has reinvigorated interest in community and what’s local. Spurred on by changing working conditions, more time spent in local communities will likely prompt a long-term emphasis on localism and doing good. During the pandemic, consumers demonstrated that they were more attuned to causes that either support or directly benefit their local communities. With public spending under pressure post COVID-19 and many businesses slow to shake the impacts of repeated lockdowns, localism is likely to remain high on the agenda. By its very nature, the effects of localism will look different across the country, but in general demand for new community spaces, retail and hospitality offerings tailored to local demand will be high.
Technology has proven capable of replacing in person and physical connections in many aspects of daily life. Forced to adapt in the face of lockdowns and restrictions, communities and businesses adopted a variety of technologies to help limit physical contact with others wherever possible. Most activity moved online with phone or video-conferencing technology replacing face-to-face business meetings, classrooms, medical consultations as well as social and family gatherings. More households turned to online on-demand entertainment and fitness classes, and home-delivery for groceries, meals, and virtually everything else. The pandemic rapidly accelerated the adoption of new technologies for many previously slow-adopters and encouraged a broader range of adopters than we might otherwise have seen. While technology will not be used to quite the same extent as it was during lockdowns, increased access and proficiency to it will likely remain high.
Challenges for high streets
This section examines the implications of pre-pandemic trends, the differential impact of the pandemic and what is still on the horizon for high streets.
Implications of pre-pandemic trends
Many pre-pandemic trends, such as technological changes and the decline of retail, will continue to affect high streets.
Store closures pre-dated the pandemic, with many high streets facing the blight of large voids. Large footprint retail-focused units, such as traditional department stores, selling commoditised, mass-produced and widely available products struggle with viability in a world of same-day home delivery. Many of the former goliaths of the town centre have closed and have left large and unsightly voids in high street frontages.
High streets need to adapt with a new experiential offer to entice visitors back. Tendency towards online shopping has catalysed the evolution of the high street from retail location to leisure destination. Shopping is no longer the primary purpose of visits to the high street, and visitors and residents expect innovative engagement. Accompanying the shift to online, the high street has suffered, leading to high vacancy rates and. In a vicious cycle, empty units lead to a poor atmosphere, decreasing footfall further and leading to more vacant shops.
High streets should be prepared for the long-term impact of new technology. Technological advancement, including the growth of online shopping, automation, and on demand expectations, was largely responsible for decreasing high street footfall prior to the pandemic. Now high street units face not only competition from similar businesses on the same or neighbouring high streets, but from the digital world.
Building resilience in the face of these challenges requires a range of strategic interventions, place-based and aware of present and future trends.
Differential impact of the pandemic
The pandemic has had an uneven impact on high streets across England.
Some high streets have benefited from trends such as hybrid working and increased demand for community events, whilst others have been disadvantaged.
Exhibit 2 provides a simplified categorisation of five types of high street impacted in different ways by the pandemic.
Rural town and out-of-town employment cluster high streets will need to encourage new footfall from residential developments, new employers, and a wider area, to replace lost spend from commuters.
The loss of commuters from these areas removes an important source of footfall for high streets. Due to low population density, finding a way to increase visitor numbers in the short-term is challenging, particularly in areas with few notable natural or heritage assets.
Long-term, increasing the catchment of high street visitors, encouraging in-person employers, and increasing the amount of residential in the vicinity of the high streets are potential opportunities to counter the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Video: Key points for councils with rural and out-of-town employment cluster high streets
High streets in urban central business districts, and city and major town centres need to overcome compounded challenges by developing an offer to draw in non-commuters and increase spend per visit.
Challenges for these high streets have been compounded by work from home trends during the pandemic and continued hybrid working, university students moving to online learning and a reduction in the number of international tourists.
In the wake of lockdowns, city and major town centres have faced greater challenges in recovering lost footfall than smaller high streets. A High Streets Task Force report on COVID-19 related changes to working practices revealed that 70 per cent of major cities continuing to see reduced numbers of visitors.
Going forward, it is likely that these high streets will have to adapt to continued lower daytime footfall from workers. Providing an engaging cultural and night-time offer could generate alternative visitors to replace lost commuters, proactively planning to serve both visitors interested in quieter engagements and those who visit restaurants, bars, and clubs.
Video: Key points for councils with high streets in urban central business districts, and city and major town centres
Many residents in villages, green belt and peripheral settlements with office-based jobs are continuing with hybrid working in the near-term. Retaining the interest of former commuters in tandem with keeping up with fast-changing technological skills requirements, digital infrastructure demands, and expectations of convenience and flexibility will be the major challenge for small rural high streets.
Video: Key points for councils with high streets in villages, green belt and peripheral settlements
With fewer workers leaving home during the day, high streets in commuter towns and suburban centres stand to benefit from increased footfall and a new higher spending weekday demographic. However, retaining footfall and spending from former commuters in the medium-term presents challenges. Real incomes face a squeeze in 2022, accompanied by continued pandemic uncertainty and a rise in living costs. A broader, high value offer with convenience and flexibility on the high street is likely to be required in the future to match the interests of new potential visitors. High streets in suburban centres and small towns can offer a long-term walkable alternative to major urban areas, if they can remain engaging and accessible enough. As the Towards Superbia report by Arup shows, creating flexible working spaces, offering digital skills training, and improving public and active transport options are all possible opportunities.
Video: Key points for councils with high streets in commuter towns and suburban centres
Many high streets in tourist ‘honeypots’ with coastal, heritage, cultural or natural assets have benefited from the increase in domestic tourism and staycations during the pandemic. Whilst cities and major town centres have suffered from the loss of international tourism, rural towns, villages, and Green Belt settlements have received an influx of British visitors. This also applies particularly to coastal areas. Many of these areas can be categorised as speciality high streets, offering a distinctive experience to visitors such as seaside attractions, food and craft markets, or local natural or heritage assets. These high streets will need to adapt to additional pressures on infrastructure placed by high numbers of tourists and environmental costs related to visits, in addition to technological shifts and consumer preferences towards sustainable and local products.
Video: Key points for councils with high streets in tourist locations
On the horizon
Social and economic divides threaten to increase in the future as technology continues to change and our population ages.
Technological advancements threaten to widen the digital divide between generations and groups from different socio-economic backgrounds. Rapid changes have introduced artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and increasing automation. Digital skills are required across all job skill-types, with 77 per cent of low-skill job openings in August 2021 requiring digital skills, rising to 83 per cent for high skill roles. However, as the LGA's report on councils' role supporting the digital skills pipeline shows, 22 per cent of people in the United Kingdom lack the digital skills needed for everyday life. Affecting employment as well as how visitors interact with the high street, awareness of the challenges and opportunities that new technology offers will enable local authorities to prepare high streets for these trends. Providing relevant training and learning opportunities for residents and local businesses will be at the core of this preparation. Local authorities can take advantage of increasing digital literacy and use of social media to effectively share information about events and local initiatives online.
Tied to risks of digital divides, our population is ageing, with growing demand for healthcare and social services too. In tandem, there is a growing number of active retirees. High streets should adapt to serve the needs of an older population, but can benefit from the footfall of relatively young, retired visitors in stores and the involvement of similar residents in local community organisations.
Resilient high streets of the future
This section looks at the four key features of resilient and revitalised future high streets: they are experiential destinations, they have flexibility built in, they are green, and they make sense in their local context. It concludes by considering a case study of Stockton-on-Tees.
This tool enables you to select an option which best describes your high street and explore the challenges they are facing and the strategies which can be adopted to tackle them.
Resilient high streets are experiential destinations
High streets should offer users experiences that go beyond purely retail or functional-oriented activities.
As Exhibit 1 illustrates, over the past 60 years the importance of experiential and social uses of high streets has grown. The impressive growth of the health and wellbeing sectors corresponds with reduced relative consumer interest in material possessions, and a prioritisation of personal or social activities in their urban centres. The decreasing relative importance of retail and functional destinations on the high street does not render them irrelevant. There is continued demand for these uses, and retail especially can include experiential and social activities within its offer. Further, a successful high street will contain a combination of retail, functional, social, and experiential units. This increases resilience against short-term changes in consumer preference.
Delivering social and experiential activities does not need to be confined within formal high street shop units. Pop-up shops and community events can be used as opportunities to engage visitors and residents and diversify the high street’s calendar. For example, Isle of Wight Council established several pop-up shops on Newport high street in council and privately-owned units. The pop-ups were introduced in response to community feedback which found the high street to be uninspiring and out-of-reach of community activities. Events such as street markets can increase footfall from residents and visitors and create local employment opportunities.
Rural towns and villages, and suburban areas, will be better suited offering weekend and family-friendly events and activities, catering to an older or family-oriented demographic. The night-time economy, developing al fresco evening dining options or innovative student-oriented events, would be better developed in urban centres.
Resilient high streets have flexibility built in
High streets need to be able to change to maintain their relevance.
Rapid technological changes offer challenges and opportunities for high streets. Technology is forecasted to continue to change the way we interact with our environments and one another. These changes provide opportunities for high streets to adapt their offer and attract new visitors and business interest. However, failure to innovate could catalyse declining footfall and an increase in voids. Managing vacancy rates, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and changes in working patterns are all additional areas requiring adaptability in high street interventions and strategy.
Flexibility can be integrated into the high street through evidence-based strategy, policy amendments, and up-to-date awareness of community needs and demands. For example, allowing Meanwhile Use or pop-up organisations to operate can temporarily fill vacant units and generate interest in the high street. Cheshire East Council has successfully used a corporate meanwhile strategy to use council-owned buildings to host a temporary art gallery and creative space. Collaboration with community stakeholders is an important part of facilitating flexibility, considering change of use and integrating multi-purpose spaces into the high street.
Demand for purpose-driven and multi-purpose spaces has grown in response to the pressures of ‘on demand’ culture and experiential engagement with the high street. In order to make high streets healthy, liveable, and functional, the High Streets Taskforce and NHS New Healthy Towns programme have identified developing multiuse and purpose-driven spaces as a priority. Much of the delivery of these spaces, containing leisure, health, and arts activities, is by the public and third sector.
Urban high streets and popular tourist destinations are more likely to need to adapt to rapid changes in technology and consumer demands. Rural towns and villages, and suburban centres, will need to be aware of changing resident needs and demands, and integrate trends into medium-term planning and skills development. There will be additional pressure on rural high streets to improve digital connectivity and high-speed internet access if they are to take full advantage of changing behaviour. Climate change and increasing concerns with sustainability also require adaptability in high street interventions.
Resilient high streets are green
High streets should deliver sustainable offerings to keep up with consumer demands and societal expectations.
Local authorities should consider transport, green spaces, and low-carbon supply chains in any environmental strategy. Pressure is growing to reduce the impact of carbon in our economy and social lives and is increasingly reflected in consumer preferences. Ethical and sustainable consumption has proliferated over recent years, particularly among younger generations. This has benefited independent businesses in certain areas and encouraged big brands to scrutinise their supply chains and launch environmentally friendly product lines.
As well as low-carbon consumption, the importance of having access to clean, green spaces near high streets has been accelerated during COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns. Investment in urban green space can deliver a range of health and environmental benefits, and demand for access to outdoor space has been reflected in the housing market during the pandemic in particular. Green spaces and cultural locations provide opportunities for residents and visitors to recharge and engage through experience. These spaces are evolving beyond being spaces in between the primary offer of retail to providing reason for visiting the high street themselves.
In addition to ‘greening’ the high street’s retail and experience offer, access to and transport around urban and rural centres requires environmental consideration. Facilitating effective low-carbon transport is heavily context dependent. In rural areas, it is likely that low-carbon private transit should be prioritised, including electric vehicles, cycling, and car clubs. Cycling, walking, buses, trains, and trams are generally more appropriate for urban low-carbon transport development. High streets with high numbers of commuters and tourists will have to accommodate for each respectively, considering weekend versus weekday provision and accessibility from public transport hubs to the high street. There is also growing interest in pedestrianised high streets, reducing emissions, congestion, and improving visitor experience.
Resilient high streets make sense in their local context
Policy interventions need to be introduced with the unique context of each high street in mind.
Local authorities should design policy interventions based on a contextual understanding of the high street in question, and the needs and demands of its users. Tailored recommendations to a broad town type can provide some relevant insight into interventions that can strengthen a high street. A place-based understanding of the needs and demands of business, residents, visitors, and community organisations will provide a more thorough insight, and increase the likelihood that interventions will be successful.
A local authority’s understanding of the context of their high streets should be constructed using multiple means, including consultations with community stakeholders and local or regional data. Reliance on one type of information can risk a loss of depth or breadth in insight. Urban high streets are more likely to be able to access relevant data, but may struggle to engage with community stakeholders. Using existing networks, such as business improvement districts or housing associations, may be the best route for community consultation. In rural and suburban centres, it may be easier to engage with active community stakeholders but require new data collection or a more regional approach to gather quantitative insights. If your high street has a high demographic of older residents in its catchment, consider making changes to improve their access to local shops and services. A report by Positive Ageing in London suggests improving walkability and increasing the number of public places to rest, as well as integrating more community services to create multiple reasons for elderly residents to visit the high street.
Community engagement can be used to build important partnerships and provide valuable insights which can support the design and delivery of projects. Feedback from community stakeholders and insights from data should inform policy interventions and be clearly acknowledged in process explanations. Formal and informal local partnerships are important for high street vitality and building resilience, particularly during recovery from the pandemic. A Town Centre Partnerships survey of good practice advises that high street partnerships should be established considering membership, mission, money, management and measuring results. A good example was a partnership set up in the Upper Dales between the district council, the police, and local residents to deliver community services in 1997. A High Streets Task Force report on strong partnerships reveals that the community partnership still runs today, supporting a library, post office services and a branch of the Newcastle Building Society on their high street, as well as a local petrol station. In the case of place branding, an important tool for shaping the image and reputation of your high street. Cardiff University research on reconsidering place branding has demonstrated the importance of involving local stakeholders to deliver an effective and honest campaign.
If there is any intention to leverage council resources to invest in the high street, it would be best done with significant community engagement and context-dependent research. The Government has recently tightened guidance on local government investments, to require an authority to disclose the contribution that an investment makes toward its service delivery objectives and/or place-making role. This allows scope for investment in assets which can unlock local growth but should be completed in line with real community needs. The Isle of Wight’s redevelopment strategy, ‘Shaping Newport’, was launched by the island’s council with six months of community engagement to ensure the relevance of any high street interventions.
Case Study: Stockton-on-Tees
In Spring 2021, Stockton was awarded £16.5 million from the Future High Streets Fund for their waterfront vision of the high street. The Tees Combined Authority will provide an additional £5 million to cover some costs.
Part of this proposal is the demolishment of an outdated, unsightly shopping centre in the centre of the town, replacing it with a public park three times the size of Trafalgar Square. The park will contain lawns, wildflower areas, play parks, and space for picnics. Councillors approved the application to demolish the shopping centre in August 2021.
The proposals will reconnect the high street to the river, creating easy access between the two areas as well as the new park, market spaces, and areas for cafes and kiosks. Exhibit 3 provides an illustration of the proposed development.
The Council has consulted local business groups and NHS representatives on this work.
National and independent businesses are in the process of relocating from the shopping centre to new units, including Iceland, Specsavers and H&M.
Councils’ contribution to successful high streets
This section outlines three ways that councils can help to shape the success of their high streets: by taking a strategic evidence-based approach, by ensuring financial viability and social benefit, and by engaging and empowering stakeholders.
This tool enables you to select an option which best describes your high street and explore the challenges they are facing and the strategies which can be adopted to tackle them.
Exhibit 4 demonstrates the challenges, opportunities, and broad actions that local authorities can take in relation to the four high street types identified.
Strategic evidence-based approach
Council interventions should be guided by evidence and an overarching high street strategy.
High street resilience should be guided by medium- and long-term strategy, founded in quantitative and qualitative evidence. Strategies allow local authorities to define what they want their high street to be and do in the near- and long-term and work backwards from that. A report by Revo and Lambert Smith Hampton revealed that two thirds of surveyed private and public sector high street experts and representatives identified increasing investment in town centre business plans and masterplans as being very important. Additionally, needs and demands identified in community consultation and data analysis can be integrated within a strategic approach, and interventions prioritised accordingly, and in light of changing trends.
Prior to developing a strategy, it is important that local authorities understand the economic and social context of local high streets and have relevant staff expertise. This includes where high streets may be competing with other rural or urban centres in the vicinity, and the socio-economic demographics of visitors and residents. Having the correct staff in place equipped with the appropriate range of skills for strategy development and implementation is also vital.
Planning policies, such as local plans and neighbourhood plans, can be used as a binding foundation for a high street strategy, safeguarding green spaces and heritage assets. Plans for ‘greening’ developments in the vicinity of the high street and local transport options can be integrated into such plans or supplementary planning documents.
Policy interventions should be consistent with the council’s high street strategy. Using local and neighbourhood plans as a base, informed by the socio-economic context of local high streets, a consistent strategy should be developed to enforce and further its contents. Policies introduced subsequently should align with the plans and strategy, to ensure credibility and build the council’s image around a shared vision for the high street.
Financial viability and social benefit
Local authorities are responsible for ensuring all high street interventions provide social benefit and do not endanger council finances.
As with any investment, projects designed to strengthen and reinvigorate the high street should be financially viable and deliver clear social benefit. High and medium-cost interventions should be assessed against existing commitments and financial capacity, regardless of their potential benefit. Projects that are deemed to be financially viable should undergo a cost-benefit analysis, and an accurate assessment of their social and economic outcomes. Legislation already requires local authorities to follow the prudential framework when making capital investments.
To increase the financial viability of socially beneficial interventions, sources of government funding are available, and there are mechanisms for sharing risk. Funding available for local authorities which relates to high streets includes the Levelling Up Fund, Community Renewal Fund, Shared Prosperity Fund and Active Travel Fund. Mechanisms for sharing risk include Municipal Investment Funds, whereby councils can raise funds and provide a low rate of return over a five-to-ten-year term.
Local authorities can invest in interventions which could have a significant impact on high streets, but poor financial planning risks undermining potential benefits. Understanding the social and environmental benefits of such interventions, considering the place-based needs and demands of the local area, is also essential to successful investment.
Engaging and empowering stakeholders
To design and deliver relevant interventions for reinvigorating high streets, community stakeholders should be consistently engaged in decision-making processes.
Engaging with community organisations and residents can facilitate interaction with hard-to-reach groups and provide important insight when designing interventions. Community organisations, such as schools, charitable groups, housing associations, and health providers should be consulted due to their expertise on residents’ needs and demands. Residents should also be involved directly; a research project commissioned by the Greater Manchester Authority found that 53 per cent of young people involved felt sad, bored, or apathetic about their high streets, and half wanted to be more involved in decision-making. To facilitate access to specific groups of local residents, and hard-to-reach communities, community organisations can be a useful point of contact. Consultation with the local hospital in Warrington raised concerns that local residents were not being adequately served by the existing health facilities. Consequently, as part of their plan for filling high street vacancies, Warrington Council established a Health and Wellbeing hub to provide general mental health services and assistance for the elderly.
Local businesses, both independents and chains, will be able to provide commercial insights about footfall, consumer preferences, and supply chain concerns. It is important to maintain positive relationships with local businesses, to ease the introduction of new interventions and facilitate coordination. In some cases, business organisations can lead on interventions. For example, business improvement districts often introduce sustainable public realm improvements, including improved walkability, flower baskets, and greener high streets, according to a University of Lisbon study on UK Business Improvement Districts.
Engagement with community stakeholders can help to identify and address skills gaps in the high street. High streets require a diverse and changing set of skills to successfully engage visitors and remain economically viable. Community stakeholders will be acutely aware of where skills are needed and can support the delivery of training programmes to upskill residents and local employees.
Interactive tool: challenges and solutions
Below is a link to a tool which enables you to select an option which best describes your high street and explore the challenges they are facing and the strategies which can be adopted to tackle them.