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The Great British (Local) High Street

14 June 2021. Published by Dea Gagoshidze, Associate

There is no doubt that the UK high street has been hit hard in recent years, not least by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But alongside the headline grabbing news of shop closures, there were in fact over 7,500 new shop openings between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2020.

This has largely been led by the local high street, which has capitalised on consumer restrictions and created a bubble of hyper localism. COVID-19 travel restrictions saw the public re-discover their local high-street. This shone through in the numbers, with footfall in smaller districts falling by less than half of that in larger cities and increasing at almost double the rate when non-essential shops were allowed to re-open.

The change in human activity is reshaping local high streets – by working from home and, therefore, eliminating the daily commute, city workers now have time to appreciate local gems and revel in the social interaction of going to a local shop. Of course, there is the question of whether such local engagement is here to stay now that the vaccine roll out is in full force and a return to offices is on the horizon, but recent surveys by YouGov and Barclaycard suggest it is: 70% and 90% (respectively) of people surveyed who shopped locally during the pandemic said that they would continue to do so once the pandemic was over. 

There are a number of reasons for this. Shoppers now factor in issues such as whether they can avoid public transport and the distance from their home when deciding where to shop. This, coupled with the impassioned calls to 'shop local' and the deepening community social bonds, stand local high streets in good stead. Companies such as American Express have managed to find a balance of encouraging cardholders to 'shop small' whilst also benefitting themselves through initiatives such as 'Shop Small' (where cardmembers who spent £10 on their Amex in a small business received a £5 credit).

The local high street faired relatively well during the pandemic, however, 14% of retail sites on the local high street are still vacant. This presents an opportunity for local investment by retailers on potentially favourable rents from landlords looking to fill vacancies. 

There is also general opportunity for local councils to really capitalise on this momentum: if they think and work collaboratively with businesses and locals to create public spaces that would benefit them (specifically those retail experiences that cannot be replicated from their own homes) there may be a real benefit. For example, we are aware of local high streets where temporary pedestrianisation has been bought in for more outdoor food and drink, and market stalls.

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