High Street Prospects: bounce back or recalibrate? Part 1/3

These three blog posts form part of a series of articles by R3intelligence academics and researchers in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, at Northumbria University, about analysing town and city centre retail markets using GIS and big data.

They were written during a period of enforced Coronavirus (CV-19) self-isolation during which the author had the opportunity of revisit literature on the challenges facing our high streets and town centres, and seeks to provide a contemporary perspective of collective knowledge and understanding on the current plight, and future prospects, of the UK high street post CV-19.

The articles are also published in The Terrier, the magazine for the UK’s Association of Chief Estates Surveyors and Property Managers in the Public Sector.


In the writing of these blogs, I was drawn, in particular, to the painstaking review by Neil Wrigley and colleagues at University of Southampton, of research projects that have sought to measure the performance of towns and city centre retailing in order to better understand the forces, drivers and behaviours that shape its future.

In their 2014 report ‘Evolving High Streets: Resilience and Reinvention’, Wrigley and Brookes acknowledged 3 important structural forces that represented both a threat and opportunity to UK town centres and high streets:

  • Progressive rise in online shopping
  • Long term cumulative impact of competition from out of town retail
  • Progressive shift in consumer behaviour and cultures of consumption.

A reflection on the prospect for UK high streets and town centres to find a new future in a post COVID-19 world

Part one: Online shopping

The UK leads the world in online shopping or e-commerce, with internet sales as a percentage of all retail sales already breaking 20% before the end of the decade, according to the Office of National Statistics. This figure is set to increase further, as a consequence of the temporary closure of most non-essential retail and leisure ‘bricks and mortar’ outlets due to Covid-19 lockdown, compounded by people who are social distancing or self-isolating having little choice but to shop on-line. The seemingly inexorable shift from bricks to clicks is predicted, by some, to exceed 50% before 2030.

There is little dispute that high streets in the U.K. will need to adapt to survive. We know we have too much retail space, in the wrong format, in the wrong place, and most town and city centres in the UK were exhibiting systematic failure and waste of potentially productive assets, even before the fall-out from CV-19. The distinction between bricks and mortar and e-commerce is diminishing, through click and collect, multi and onmi-channel, showrooming and, increasingly, for e-tailers to seek a presence on the high street. So how many physical shops does a retailer need in the digital age? Where should they be located? Will the high street ever recover? Can high streets bounce back or have we reached a tipping point?

Perhaps now is the time for a stock take of town and city centres, for a change in their trajectory, towards a more civic and societal role, providing a wider range of functional and experiential touch points that incorporate enhanced services to improve our well-being. In other words, to recalibrate and reorient towards a new future. Secondary and sub-urban retail nodes can also serve an important role and function, as society returns to a more stable equilibrium of ‘just-in-time’ convenience consumption that offers the prospect of re-localisation, with increasingly choice edited neighbourhoods providing both functional and experiential touch points at the local level.

The propensity for some locations to recover, and even bounce forward, will depend to a great degree on their relative resilience or vulnerability, and more specifically, on their adaptive resilience e.g. the fundamentals of places to find new uses for redundant spaces, to reabsorb vacant units, that would otherwise blight their surroundings. We are not short of intelligence in this regard, as evidenced by the plethora of studies that were undertaken in the last decade (see list of sources at end of Part 3).

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