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Town centre footfall holding up better than cities, says task force

Covid-19’s impact means retail is being pushed out of the high street with “multifunctional” centres attracting more visitors in the wake of lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in the high street revolution at a quicker rate than anticipated as empty shops continue to crop up in town centres.

New research from the High Streets Task Force found that town centres that have evolved beyond focusing on retail as a star attraction have led to people rediscovering their local neighbourhoods in the wake of lockdown.

The high street may have been battered by the pandemic, with shops closed for months and big name retailers and restaurants disappearing for good, but town centres have fared better than bigger cities. Between March and June this year, footfall in smaller district centres plummeted by a third, albeit much less than the 75 per cent drop reported in large cities over the same period.

The task force, commissioned by the Government last year to support the transformation of high streets across England, analysed footfall from 154 towns and found that 44 per cent now provided a wider range of different “multifunctional” services beyond shopping trips. Increasingly, town planners are taking this approach with eight per cent more towns being classed in that category.

But while Covid-19 has transformed the landscape, footfall was already down five per cent since 2015 and experts are warning that a recovery to pre-Covid-19 football levels is not on the cards.

The task force is urging that the opportunity to make “productive use of redundant retail space” be grasped.

Professor Cathy Parker, High Streets Task Force research lead and marketing and retail enterprise professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The historic decline in footfall we’ve seen doesn’t mean that all high streets are failing. It shows that their function is changing.

“Our research indicates that during and after lockdown, local high streets have been people’s lifeline, for essential retail and services, and as a gateway to local parks and greenspace. People are rediscovering their local areas and rethinking what they want from their high streets.”

The research also highlighted the changing role of city centres post-lockdown.  Similarly, new research by retail analysts Springboard found that nearly 11 per cent of shops remained vacant in July compared with 9.8 per cent in January.

While empty premises increased in six out of 10 regions in England, Greater London was worst hit, with empty shops increasing by nearly two-thirds. The figures demonstrate why the Government has been so insistent this week that office workers get “back to work” to boost city footfall.

People are rediscovering their local areas and rethinking what they want from their high streets

“The reality of the new normal has already started to bite,” said Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard. “This result brings into sharp focus the difficulties faced by large cities in attracting customers back and the impact of this on our bricks and mortar retail landscape.”

The footfall figures demonstrate the challenges facing Big Issue vendors, working hard to earn a living in all weathers. Support your local vendor by buying a magazine while out and about in towns or cities across the UK.

Image: Flickr/Aron n Alisons

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