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What does the UK public want from its high streets?

With retail and hospitality reopening, high streets across the country are coming back to life and taking their first steps towards recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research shows that the public remains supportive of high streets as hubs of community, and want to see vibrant, pedestrianised places, with independent retailers and green spaces.

The way people shop and where they shop has changed during the pandemic - and some of these changes look set to stay. Our evolving high streets have faced an accelerated move to online shopping and a rapid change in consumer habits. But as the lockdown lifts, our Future of Government research - Rethinking levelling-up - shows that one of the public's top priorities is investing in town centres and high streets. Alongside that, our Consumer Sentiment survey shows that consumer confidence is now at its highest levels since 2008.

After such a difficult year on the high street, this is cheering news. But what does the public want the future high street to look like and where should that investment go? PwC is exploring this issue as part of the High Streets Task Force, working with the Institute of Place Management and consortium partners to help local government and communities support the recovery and transformation of the UK's high streets.

Covid closures

While the public wants to see investment in high streets and town centres, during the pandemic they have inevitably been visiting them a lot less. Our polling (from February 2021) found that 62% of people visited their high street less often than before the pandemic, and 69% visited their local city centre less than before the pandemic. Meanwhile, the latest footfall data from the High Streets Task Force shows that footfall on 8 April 2021 was down 65.6% compared to the same day in 2019. Hand in hand with less footfall comes less spending, with 50% of people saying they are spending less on the high street.

So, it is little surprise that our latest store openings and closures data reports record numbers of closures during 2020. We are also starting to see how the pandemic has impacted different places in different ways. Some of the town and city centres that were most successful pre-pandemic have been hardest hit, and others that were struggling have proved more resilient. Large city centres have been heavily impacted by large numbers of people working from home and a drop in visitors, while suburban areas, commuter towns and small towns are faring better as people stick closer to home.

Future trends

The markets or shops may have changed, but the high street has stood the test of time as a place for people to gather. The factors that are important to people will vary locally and the challenge for local leaders, working with business and communities, is to create places that work for all those who visit or live there.

While the decline of retail is a concern to many, overall, the public are keen to see high street spaces used in a range of new ways. Nationally, people are most enthusiastic about more independent shops and restaurants (63%) - a trend we have also seen in our Consumer Sentiment data, as well as pedestrianisation (54%) and more green space (52%).

There are some regional variations. For example, respondents in the north of England are more likely than those in the rest of the UK to say they would like commercial space to be replaced by green space, while people in the devolved nations are more likely to be keen on developing empty space on the high street into residential rentals.

Horizontal bar graph: What changes would you welcome in your town in city?

Planning a recovery

As the high street reopens, there won’t be one formula for success - what works in Harrogate won't work in Hull. What’s needed is specific and local responses for individual places which take into account broader environmental and social indicators beyond the short-term indicators such as footfall and vacancy rates. To plan their path to recovery, each high street needs to consider both its 'viability' in the medium and long term as well as its 'vitality' today.

Though retailers will continue to be an important part of the high street, local leaders need to take heed of COVID-caused and COVID-accelerated trends. For example, the convenience of out-of-town retail parks for car-borne shoppers and their range of essential retailers has meant they have become the more resilient of retail destinations during the pandemic, particularly those that are anchored by retail rather than leisure. On the other hand, indoor shopping centres in town centres are the least attractive retail destination, COVID-19 has accelerated this trend.

Local leaders need to understand the place-specific mix of challenges and tap into their communities to find out what they want from their high streets and town centres, as well as engage them in determining how spaces are used. That may mean more green space and pedestrian areas in some places, investment in community assets and heritage in others, or creating more housing, where evidence shows this will support the longer term sustainability of the high street.

They also need to think about more flexible solutions. With so much uncertainty still ahead, now is the time to experiment, try different things - pop-up shops, markets, repair cafes - and think about how assets might be recycled or reused in future.

Finally, for local authorities there’s an opportunity to align investment around their recovery objectives, in particular the Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund and Community Ownership Fund, to deliver high streets and town centres that are at the heart of their communities - ones that people want to visit and can be proud of. Central government should support this alignment and consider how these different funding streams can come together to deliver maximum impact in a place.

“For every place there are different priorities when emerging from the pandemic, driven by the unique nature of its location, catchment and visitors. It may be obvious, following lockdown, that more green space is needed, transport links may need to be improved including for active travel, or a more diverse offer of entertainment, shared working space and retail could be needed.

The High Streets Task Force is helping place leaders to deal with this complexity by providing frameworks for recovery and transformation. These ask what strategies need to be prioritised now; is it the local partnerships and resource for change that need to be developed, for example, or is rebranding needed to attract people and engage them in a new and evolving high street?”

Prof Cathy Parker, Research Lead for the High Streets Task Force

Beyond retail

It’s clear that the high street cannot recover if rescuing retail is the starting point. We need a future vision for the high street that works for local communities and is a place that people want to live, work and visit.

Our public polling found that people hold local government and business primarily responsible for the future of the high street, and that means that stronger connections between businesses and local government leaders, who both have local knowledge and understanding of their areas, will be key to delivering successful high streets.

As we emerge out of lockdown, the role of local leaders and place makers in working with communities and businesses to set out and create a new vision for our high streets has never been more important.

“There is no simple answer to what the future high street will look like and this won’t be about cloning towns. Transforming high streets and town centres is about finding what works for individual communities and businesses and working together to bring this to life and creating vibrant, sustainable places that are at the heart of their communities.”

Jonathan House, devolved and local government leader, PwC UK
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