Britain’s high street “is not dead” and struggling town and city centres could be transformed by becoming industry hubs instead of places to shop, according to new research refuting claims that a crisis in bricks-and-mortar retail is killing then off.
The Centre for Cities, an independent think-tank, said on Tuesday that local councils should shift town centre economies away from an “overreliance on retail” towards high-skilled industry, and said the belief that high streets were “dying” was misplaced.
In a report written in partnership with George Capital, the property fund manager, the think-tank said policymakers could save struggling town centres by increasing investment in jobs and skills, and outlined a series of proposals to boost footfall on high streets.
The research comes after a string of insolvencies at main high-street retailers and a rise in vacancy rates have fuelled fears that online shopping is killing city centres.
“The main challenge for poorly performing high streets is not the internet. It is the lack of skilled workers and demand to make the shift away from retail and towards high-knowledge and leisure services,” the report said.
It showed how cities such as Manchester have benefited from growth in knowledge-based jobs and an expansion in the number of young professionals living in the city centre, as well as an increase in property supply.
The number of residents in Manchester city centre increased by 20,000 between 2002 and 2017, and the number of jobs grew by 70,000 between 1998 and 2015.
In contrast, conurbations such as Blackpool, which have fewer high-skilled workers living in their centres, have seen slower growth in jobs and population during the same period.
High street vacancies are likewise higher in urban centres than others, according to the report. In Newport, 24 per cent of units were empty in 2017-18 but in Brighton and Birmingham, just 8 and 10 per cent of units respectively stood empty.
The Centre for Cities found that 62 per cent of commercial space in “strong” city centres — those with larger shares of high-skilled jobs — comprised of offices, three times higher than the share in “weak” centres, those that were less dense and had fewer high-skilled workers.
The research also found that retail space accounted for 43 per cent of floor space in weak centres compared with 18 per cent in strong centres.
The think-tank proposed that local leaders be allowed to access the National Productivity Investment Fund, a £23bn pot earmarked for increasing economic growth over six years from 2017-18 in order to boost their centres.
It also said cities should be offered exemptions from development rights to protect “valuable” office space from conversion to residential units, and urged more investment in creating a skilled and educated workforce.
“It is not all doom and gloom on the high street, despite the headlines,” said Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Centre for Cities.
“Instead of trying to replace failed shops with more retail, investors and policymakers should focus their strategies on making struggling city centres attractive places to do business and spend leisure time — not just to shop.”