High streets should switch focus to office space and high-skilled jobs

Many British High Streets face a bleak future as policymakers are failing to identify a clear economic focus to city centre regeneration strategies. According to the Centre for Cities’ latest research, in partnership with Nationwide Building Society, success is defined by those policies that create skills, jobs and quality office space for businesses rather than currently accepted interventions such as cultural initiatives, business rate reforms and online sales taxes.

Specific interventions are unlikely to succeed due to a lack of consumer spending power needed to sustain a mix of amenities. Instead, government funding should focus on upskilling workers and attracting professional businesses into city centres.

The research emphasises the link between the presence of highly skilled, well-paid jobs in city centres to the quality and quantity of high street amenities.

It claims there is little evidence to suggest that direct interventions provide long-term solutions to the economic reasons behind high street decline. While they can have an impact, they fail to address the lack of spending power in many cities.


Key findings

The report found that prosperous city centres with lots of office space and high-skilled jobs accommodate significantly more varied high street amenities than economically weak cities.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Prosperous city centres with lots of office space and high-skilled jobs accommodate significantly more varied high street amenities than economically weak cities[/perfectpullquote]

In Mansfield and Barnsley, just seven per cent of city centre high street space is taken by specialist amenities such as cinemas, independent restaurants or cocktail bars. But in a city such as Manchester, where the number of city centre workers has increased by 80 per cent in the last 20 years, the proportion of units taken by specialist high street amenities is four times higher, at 28 per cent. In London the proportion of specialist amenities is even greater – at 40 per cent.

Too many shops in city centres also signals a weak local economy. In prosperous cities with low vacancy rates such as Cambridge, restaurants and cafes account for around 30 per cent of units. But in economically weaker cities with more empty units, such as Newport, the proportion of eateries falls below 10 per cent and the number of shops rises.

While internet competition is not the primary cause of high street decline, city centre amenities offering consumers something they are unable to get online are more likely succeed in the long-term.


Policy recommendations

To secure the long-term future of high streets, policymakers in both Central Government and councils should develop programmes to support the wider business community, particularly those businesses creating highly-skilled, high-paying jobs that will in turn create demand for better, relevant amenities needed to improve and enhance the local economy.

Practically, this means:

  • Improving educational attainment and skills provision for people living in cities
  • Investing in transport systems to allow better access to amenities and city centre jobs
  • Providing businesses with quality facilities and office space in the city centre

Centre for Cities’ Chief Executive, Andrew Carter, said: “Good jobs and a strong local economy are the keys to saving high streets. Any interventions that seek to improve cities’ amenities without boosting consumer spending power are doomed to fail from an economic perspective.

“Specific cultural initiatives have many civic benefits, but policymakers should be wary of using them as a tool to regenerate local economies. Policy should focus on improving cities’ overall economic performance. Crucially this means using high street funding to boost the skills and incomes of residents.”

Image: Area