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COVID-19: Can the High Street Recover?

The impact of COVID-19 on our high streets has been unprecedented. All non – food shops and stores along with cafes, pubs and bars restaurants, cinemas, theatres and urban gyms are re-opening only now, late in July, having been closed for over 15 weeks. Even then, re-opening is under stringent social distancing and hygiene controls.

The question is: What damage has the lockdown done to the “high street”, and will it recover?

The term “high street” is shorthand for the location of the retail sector in town and city centres. But it is only one function of the centre. You can add leisure and tourism, trade and commerce, professional financial and legal services, manufacturing industry and increasingly a residential function. Including them is important because:

  • All of the above attract large numbers of commuters and shoppers as well as diners, theatre goers and the like, into the city centre generating people movement. (footfall)
  • Retailing is highly dependent upon footfall (or passing trade).

Successful and Unsuccessful Urban Centres

Centre for Cities, an independent research organisation, uses a range of measures to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful urban centres. Successful towns and cities tend to be where office employment is buoyant, there is a wide range of attractive leisure and cultural facilities, and the retail sector is performing well. In unsuccessful town and city centres like Sunderland, for example, the opposite applies. See images below.

Note: The clear North-South divide apparent in the table below.

High Street Blog 2

An Example of a Struggling High Street

High Street Blog 1

The key factor is footfall. Successful towns and cities generate more of it throughout the day and at weekends and this is what keeps the “high street” going.

Lockdown has dealt a major blow to footfall because, not only has it closed much of the city or town centre, but large numbers of workers have been encouraged to work from home, and people have been actively discouraged from using public transport, resulting in city centres effectively becoming empty (see image below).

Centre for Cities estimate that footfall in city centres is still only at 22% of pre COVID-19 levels.

At the same time there has been a boom in online shopping, which accounted for a record 33% of all retail sales (including food and essentials) in May. The question is whether trade that has been lost to e-commerce will go back to the high street as lockdown is eased.

Empty Lockdown Streets in London

High Street Blog 3

Impact and Recovery

Predicting the nature and shape of recovery is difficult not least because it is still too early to gauge how soon people will return to their places of employment, or whether working from home will become an increasingly accepted mode of working.

Note: Fujitsu based in Japan have already changed their work model. it will halve its office space in Japan as it adapts to the "new normal" of the coronavirus pandemic, and working from home or in smaller “ local hub” offices will become the norm. Could that become the norm in the UK?

Linked to that, is the question of whether people will be prepared to use public transport, because if they don’t, bus services will be lost, and commuting to the city centre will not be an option for many.

Initial signs are not promising. In the last week of June over 10,000 retail jobs were lost as some main stream retailers opted not to reopen their stores. This on top of the 2,051 stores that went into administration with the loss of 45,000 jobs in 2019.

Then in the first week of July the Pret-a-Porter chain announced the closure of 30 stores with a loss of around 1000 jobs.

It is the successful cities which have felt the biggest impact from “lockdown”. The reason is, of course, that successful cities had more to lose in terms of footfall. For struggling cities, economic activity and footfall before the COVID-19 outbreak were already at a much lower level. They didn’t have so far to fall.

It is also the successful cities which are struggling, at present, to recover their position, possibly because they have larger numbers of people employed in office-based jobs, and who are still working from home. So, fewer people are coming into the city centres and consequently footfall remains low.

Without the returning footfall, all types of retail from sandwich bars and local shops through to the large department stores and specialist retailers are likely to struggle and may well go out of business once financial support from the government ceases.

While there appears to be a general acceptance that eventually cities like Oxford, Cambridge and even London will recover, the outcome is by no means certain.

The key for the struggling towns and cities like Sunderland, Hull and Swansea, for example, will be for the government working with local authorities to introduce a wide range of supporting measures to broaden the employment base and to develop innovative strategies to attract trade back into the urban centres.

The question is; what happens if the changes we see now are semi-permanent? The Government has announced a plan to “change use without planning permission and create new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings.” Whether this would re-invigorate urban centres is open to question. The last word is with Centre for Cities researcher Rebecca Macdonald.

“At best the policy will be ineffective; at worse it will harm the economies of stronger city centres.”

Fieldwork Opportunities

The current situation is an opportunity for students to conduct fieldwork with contemporary relevance. Here are just a few suggestions to get the ideas flowing:

  • Examine the impact of lock down on pedestrian flows and footfall in town centres.
  • Chart recovery in footfall over time.
  • Analyse changes in land use, shop closures.
  • Examine changing patterns of public transport use/commuting.
  • Attempt to map the residential location of people continuing to work from home e.g. Survey of parents? How does the pattern change across different neighbourhoods and employment groups within the town?
  • Conduct a questionnaire survey of attitudes towards home working both now and into the future.
  • Critically assess the viability of walking to work or cycling to work for the resident population in your town.
  • Examine the impact of road re-modelling on traffic flow, pedestrian flows and cycle use.
  • What impact (if any) have changes in transport modes had on environmental quality around your town?


By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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