Re-imagining the high street

According to The Local Data Company, one in six shops across the UK is vacant. The report suggests that while some places, such as Cambridge, occupancy rate is has high as 94%, across 700 other locations there are clusters where vacancy rates are much higher. In Stockport the rate is as high as 30%. Elsewhere in places such as Nottingham, Grimsby, Wolverhampton and Blackburn the rate is one empty shop in four.

Whatever the cause, the high street retail model is failing in many places although we should be careful how we attribute the changes occupation levels. Close to where I live in Liverpool, the Edge Lane retail park has a 50% vacancy rate which suggests there may be problems for retail parks too.

Unpublished research by myself and Jeremy Nicholls suggests that supermarkets have had a mixed effect on local retail – it wasn’t all negative. Online shopping continues apace but remains a small proportion of total retail expenditure and of course the decline of the high street has been ongoing longer than the internet has been in existence. Ultimately, there is more retail space than there is demand for retail activity. Stimulating new demand or changing the existing demand model is not an easy task.

While we do need to understand the causes, it’s also important that we focus on finding solutions. The Portas review recently led the way in trying to re-imagine the high street. Neil McInroy wrote a useful blog that covered some of the weaknesses, especially on the failure to address the issue of demand and that the review doesn’t offer a way to move beyond a shopping list of high street wishes.

Garry Haywood

Garry Haywood is a partner at So-Mo, a network development company, and a researcher on local economies combining an evolutionary and complexity based approach.

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