The changing high street

Questions about how the high street is changing and what can be done

What impact has COVID had on the future of the high street?


COVID has had a profound impact on town centres, and appears to have accelerated some of the changes already underway in town centres.

  • UK online retail sales had been growing steadily over the last decade and averaged 19.2% for 2019 (ONS), the two peak months for online sales. With lockdown, online shopping boomed to a 30.1% share in April, 32.8% in May, before falling back to 28.1% in July (ONS Retail Sales Index time series August 2020).
  • As non-essential retail reopened, many multiple stores did not. With some business closures and other companies cutting stores, the Centre for Retail Research has logged over 3,100 multiple store losses between 1st January and 5th August 2020, an accelerated rate already above the whole year totals for the last seven years.
  • Footfall across UK high streets fell 88% in April compared to 2019. A new report by the Task Force, shows that for the period March 1st to June 30th, local district centres saw footfall down 34.5% on 2019, but larger city centres were down 75.9%. Although footfall is returning to many centres and Holiday towns are now very close to 2019 levels, cities which rely on office workers, students and international visitors are still significantly below past levels in footfall, with central London still 50% down on 2019 and regional cities averaging 40% down in the first week of August according to HSTF partner Springboard.
  • There has been significant impact on property values, with many tenants not able to pay rent. Whilst the property industry has been working on ways to address this, many are seeing reduced income and this led to INTU going into administration. There will be further developments in this area.


Town and city centres have responded to challenge throughout their history. The disruption and uncertainty caused by the arrival of the department stores in centres is now being mirrored by their departure. Out of town shopping and leisure and the growth of online retailing have both had significant consequences for town centres that had been dominated by multiple retailers. Over recent years, the awareness of the threat to town centres has made front page headlines.

Those looking to the future know that there are global challenges and changes that will impact on town centres. Addressing the climate emergency is seeing responses such as 15 minute cities, but much more needs to happen on this. We are still in the early days of significant technological change that will impact on business operations and our daily lives.

The Task Force is part of the government’s response to these challenges, alongside initiatives such as the Future High Streets Fund, the Towns Fund and support for town centres through the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the likely future for town and city centres?

The Review of High Street Footfall 2019-2020 published by the Task Force in August 2020 shows how centres are already changing. Retail is declining as a dominant driver of visitors in many towns. 44% of towns in the survey are now classed as ‘multifunctional’, a rise of 8% on the previous year, and just 19% are ‘comparison retail’ towns. The multifunctional towns, which offer a wide range of non-retail attractions, are proving more attractive to visitors as footfall returns to high streets.

The Task Force Routemap to Transformation webinar series heard from a number of leading speakers who work with town and city centres, some at a national level and some in individual locations. All agreed that change is happening, and they were enthusiastic about that change.

Although there is not one solution, and several of our speakers felt this was a mistake made in the past that resulted in clone towns, the high street of the future should look to meet more of the needs of its local community. This will require a broader offer and more inclusive approach to bring the change about.

Retail will still be a core function of town centres. Major retailers are reinventing their store experiences and will make greater use of technology to showcase products. We are already seeing a reduction in the number of locations they trade in and this will continue. Some of the space being vacated is being taken by independent retailers, pop-ups, and new retail concepts. Local businesses, often with local produce and a distinctive offer, and whether in full time premises or market environments, will become important attractors.

We were seeing a demand for flexible workspace before the advent of COVID, but as more workers work primarily from home, it is likely that this will become a more important constituent of our town centres.

There is growing interest in returning civic and public services to town centres so they are easily accessible. In January 2020, the Welsh Government reemphasised its town centres first policy for government departments and the public sector more widely and this has been a key part of the policy approach in Scotland for a number of years.

The accessibility of town centres makes them good locations for healthcare and wellness facilities and we had some examples in the webinar series. Similarly, education and learning facilities, including libraries, being located in town centres are significant drivers of footfall and provide support for other offers in the town. Such facilities are increasingly open throughout a long period of the day, including some accessible 24 hours, which can complement other activities in a town and helps extend their activity hours.

A good proportion of people use town centres outside the traditional 9-5 shopping hours. In 2019-20, using data from 154 centres across the country, 16% of daily footfall happens in an evening and 15% at night. However, this is not evenly spread, and using analysis of footfall by hour from these centres, 35% have been classified as having “an all-day economy” whilst the remainder are still more focused around traditional working hours. (Review of High Street Footfall 2019-2020)

Former retail space, as well as upper floors are now being occupied by new kinds of leisure space in many places. Whilst COVID has interrupted this, they are likely to be an important user of space and, again, a generator of footfall outside of traditional retail hours. These leisure activities sit alongside more formal cultural offers and the wider hospitality offer. The latter is facing clear challenges with viability as numbers of customers are restricted, but is an important contributor to the diversity and attraction of town and city centres.

We are also likely to see more housing in and around town centres. This has to co-exist alongside other town centre users, and issues like servicing, noise, and other things assessed.

Need for inclusive visions

The scale and pace of change in town centres, and the diversity of new activities and roles for the high street, means that plans must be made to stimulate change and manage it. This calls for place leadership, an inclusive vision developed using evidence, and effective engagement and communication. Though we know that COVID Recovery Plans have been developed in many places, we also hear that this is not the case in a substantial number of places. This is only the first step in what will be required to make your town centre a sustainable location that well serves its community. The Task Force Routemap to Transformation identifies the actions required to bring this about. Each step is explained and supported by resources and online learning as well as a webinar series that offers insight into the process and provides good practice examples.