Almost everyone in local government is worrying about their high streets. Many were struggling even before the lockdowns changed the landscape for retail and hospitality. Reflecting on this, our second session on economic recovery from the pandemic focused on policy that might help our high streets (The Cities and Local Growth Unit asked us to run these events based on the work we produced during 2020 on green investment, youth unemployment, working from home, evaluation, and business support – more details can be found here.)
The session started with a great presentation from Analyst Valentine Quinio on Centre for Cities’ High street recovery tracker .The importance of tracking what’s happening as the economy recovers was one a key message to emerge from our discussions.
We also emphasised key messages about the role of the high street in a local economy, taken primarily from Head of Policy Danni Mason’s excellent evidence briefing.
First, the most important factor for the health of the high street is consumer demand.
Demand generates revenues that are the main concern for the retailers who are the backbone of the high street. In the longer term, the main driver of consumer demand is local incomes – so addressing skills and employment in a place is essential. A thriving high street is more often a sign, rather than a cause, of success.
Secondly, the jury is still out on work and commuting trends.
Covid-19 rules and travel restrictions further complicate the picture. Flexibility is going to be key over the next year or two, so high streets have the ability to adjust to the inevitable changes in behaviour. A good example, raised by one of our local authority participants, is how to support and encourage landlords to allow the use of currently empty properties.
On the business side, we may need to help firms to do more digitally.
It certainly feels like any support will need to be light touch as businesses are overwhelmed with demands on their time. Fortunately, our business advice toolkits suggest that such support can be cost-effective. Helping businesses make the most of national schemes such as EOTHO may be the best way to support them.
One way to increase footfall and spend is to build new residential development near a high street – and a number of seminar questions asked how to assess such developments. This does not have to be an overly complicated exercise. The first step is to consider who is likely to occupy any new residential space. Will their profile be similar to the rest of the population? We can assume that footfall will increase in line with the number of new residents, and even their likely spend can be estimated based on comparisons with current spending patterns.
Unless it is very large, or it accompanies a major change in the employment structure of a place, conversion to residential is unlikely to be transformative. But it can help retail and hospitality businesses and increase the sense of ‘buzz’ on a high street.
While our seminar focused on the economics, the importance of the high street and people’s feeling about a place should not be understated. This essay by Rachel Wolfe on levelling up captures this idea nicely. She says:
High streets, along with public realm, and sports and culture, is one of those programme areas where we advise policymakers to focus their efforts on outcomes other than economics. The evidence base suggests that such projects are unlikely to be major drivers of employment and wages for local people. Wellbeing, health, and civic pride – all important in their own right – are where these projects are more likely to deliver.