A major new research study of 154 towns shows that district centres saw a smaller fall in visitors compared to cities, as high streets continue to evolve from retail focus to ‘multifunctional’ hubs.
New research indicates that town centres in England are evolving, with retail no longer the dominant attraction for visitors to the high street, and that COVID-19 has led many people to rediscover their local neighbourhoods.
The rise of ‘multifunctional’ towns
The High Streets Task Force analysed footfall from 154 towns and found that 44% provide a wide range of different services to their communities and can be classified as ‘multifunctional’. This type of town has increased by 8% in the last year (Jul 19 - Jun 20) and compares to just 19% of town centres that focus predominantly on ‘comparison retail’ to attract visitors.
Experts at the Task Force, commissioned by Government in 2019 to support the transformation of England’s high streets, say multifunctional towns and districts that serve their local area have fared better during the COVID-19 crisis. From March 1 to June 30 2020, footfall in smaller district centres fell by 34.5%, compared to a drop of 75.9% in larger cities over the same period.
Longer-term changes in footfall
Before COVID-19 had an impact, footfall in town centres had fallen by 5% since 2015 and this latest research suggests high streets may not recover to pre-COVID footfall levels.
Professor Cathy Parker, Research Lead of the High Streets Task Force and Professor of Marketing and Retail Enterprise 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.”
Need to focus planning on activity over retail
The report also calls for a re-think of how towns are classified – recommending planning authorities focus on levels of ‘activity’, or how busy the town is, instead of just defining a town by the amount of retail floorspace it has – to ensure that future development and planning decisions are sustainable.
The Task Force research shows that over a quarter (26%) of towns have less footfall than their official planning designation would suggest. Many local authorities use a retail hierarchy to designate centres as major city, regional centre, sub-regional centre, major town, town or district – however, this often doesn’t match the centre’s footfall volume, with the research finding no real difference in footfall volumes between centres categorised in planning terms as ‘major towns’ or ‘towns’.
Professor Parker said:
“Over a quarter of towns in our dataset may be setting visions and plans that are, perhaps, unachievable. Towns that have a ‘sub-regional’ classification, but where footfall is considerably lower than would be expected, are especially prone to being convinced that more retail or commercial development is the way to regain their status. Serving their local population and being a multifunctional hub is a more achievable route to sustainability, generating a stable level of footfall”
“We believe that an ‘activity hierarchy’ is a better way to consider our town centres – as either major cities, regional centres, towns or districts. This simpler approach based on footfall would make for better planning decisions and help to emphasise that for many places, serving their local population with a wide range of services, including health, education, culture and leisure, is a more achievable route to success.”
In highlighting the changing fortunes and role of city centres post-lockdown, the report also highlights the need to consider how liveable cities are for their resident populations.
High Streets Task Force Chair, Mark Robinson, said:
“The pandemic has brought forward changes that usually take years to occur, instead of “how long is the commute” people are asking “Do I live within walking distance of the services I need – like food, green space, healthcare, schools and childcare?” It is clear that multifunctional town centres are on the rise and we now have the opportunity to accelerate this to meet the challenge of bringing back into productive use, redundant retail space.”
Support for high streets
The High Streets Task Force provides training and data to place managers and has a programme of footfall counting and analytics that is being rolled out across the country. Its footfall dashboards provide models of annual, monthly, weekly and daily footfall for any town centre location, to support decision making and monitor economic recovery.
Local councils and other place management organisations can sign up for support with footfall analysis from the Task Force by visiting www.highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/products-and-services/data-and-insights/.