High street performance and evolution: A brief guide to the evidence

This 2014 report led by researchers at the University of Southampton and funded by the ESRC, provides a summary of key evidence about high street and town centre performance to help those devising local policies and strategies. It covers the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges brought about by the 2008 economic crash, understanding town centre users, evolving high streets, and evidence gaps. Case study examples are also provided.

Date added 19 October 2021
Last updated 19 October 2021

*This resource is more than 5 years old but has been included as it contains information that is still relevant and useful*

This report provides a summary of key evidence about high street and town centre performance to help those devising local policies and strategies, due to recognising there are often evidence gaps and not all decision-making is underpinned by data. It begins by outlining the 'perfect storm’ of challenges brought about by the 2007/8 global financial crisis. Immediate outcomes negatively impacting high streets were reduced consumer confidence, stagnating incomes, and high business operating costs, leading to retail closures and rising vacancy levels. Over this period, the report explains how some centres weathered the storm better than others, including a north-south divide, service-orientated centres performing better than retail-dominated centres, and centres supported by a catchment within a strong socio-economic context also performed better.

Based on the above, the authors suggest that data gaps remain around retail floorspace, not all centres counting footfall, and how accessibility impacts performance. And that, in the future, further qualitative (e.g. user perceptions) and quantitative (e.g. vacancy) measures of town centre attractiveness and performance need to be considered and gathered.

The report next moves onto outlining other short-term, medium-term, and long-term forces for change high streets and town centres are facing, even before the economic crash, which provide both challenges to overcome and opportunities to evolve. These are summarised below, and the report pays particular attention to explaining the impact of out-of-town shopping, rise in online shopping, and growth of convenience culture:

Short-term challenges:

  • Decreasing consumer confidence and disposable income following the 2008 economic crisis.
  • Effects of ‘ghost town’ vacancies and reducing footfall.
  • National geographic spread of wealth.

Medium-term challenges:

  • Effects of the 'Town Centre First’ approach.
  • Impact of Business Improvement Districts.
  • The challenge of off-centre retailing.

Long-term challenges:

  • The rise in convenience culture and demand for leisure activities.
  • Changing demographics of the population (e.g. ageing).
  • The impact of online shopping and the 'digital high street’.

The institutional support helping to manage the above forces for change are next addressed, with the authors arguing that well-managed centres are best able to cope with any challenges arising, covering BIDs, Town Centre Management, Town Teams, Local Strategic Partnerships, Neighbourhood Plans, and ATCM schemes like the Purple Flag and Digital High Street Programme. Before demonstrating the importance of understanding the behaviour and perceptions of town centre users in improving high street performance, including short case studies of enhancing Loughborough and Mansfield.

Finally, how town centres and high streets have been evolving over recent years is discussed; as the authors suggest, "high streets have always been dynamic and adaptive and have constantly been reshaped by periodic economic and competitive shocks” (p.14). This concluding section of the report covers the use of online and digital technologies to enhance town centre and high street experience; a potential symbiotic relationship between corporate retailers and local independents; long-term shifts from retail-dominated to more service-orientated centres; catering for changing demographics; and how a one-size-fits-all approach to managing town centres and high streets doesn’t work.