Declining UK high streets: Reimagining town centres to help nurture communities

A blog by Cumberland Lodge Fellow, Anna Jungbluth, reflecting on our Dialogue & Debate webinar on 'Reimagining the High Street', in June 2020


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cumberland Lodge has continued to facilitate cross-disciplinary discussions on pressing issues of social cohesion, through its Dialogue & Debate webinar series.

On 24 June 2020, four guest panellists discussed how UK high streets might retain or regain their distinctive character and help to nurture communities, to support social cohesion, in a webinar on ‘Reimagining the High Street’

Four experts were invited to lead the discussion:

  • Clare Bailey – retail expert, media contributor, author of two best-selling books, and one of the UK’s most well-known and respected retail commentators.
  • Cllr Matthew Brown – Leader of the Preston City Council. Matthew has helped to drive the ‘Preston Model’ of local development, which focuses on implementing the principles of community wealth building.
  • Lahari Ramuni – a researcher at the Centre for Cities, and an expert in infrastructure and planning policy. Her work focuses on digital infrastructure and improving user engagement.
  • Professor Saskia Sassen – the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Saskia is an expert on cities, immigration and states in the world economy, and studies inequality, gendering, and digitisation.

Adapting to the changing needs of communities

To open the conversation, Clare Bailey discussed the urgency for UK high streets to adapt to the changing needs of communities.

Over the last few years, many high streets were experiencing a steady decline in footfall. Clare argued that this was related to political uncertainty, in addition to inconveniences such as restricted opening hours. High streets with opening hours beyond the 9-to-5 window, in addition to the availability of parking, traditionally saw less of a decline in footfall.

With mobile phones and online commerce playing an increasingly pivotal role in people’s lives, many high streets are struggling to adapt quickly enough to changing consumer behaviour. Consumers nowadays are seeking out high streets for social experiences, rather than just to buy goods.

Whilst these changes were prevalent before the pandemic, lockdown restrictions accelerated the need for high streets to engage in the digital transformation.

Adapting to changing workplaces

In bigger cities, many people commute to their workplaces, and office complexes tend to be located in the same neighbourhoods as commercial retail areas. This means that stores  benefit from the daily footfall of working professionals.

During the pandemic, most office workers have been working remotely, and it is expected that this could drive a longer-term shift towards more home-based working. In London, and other large cities, this will potentially  lead to much emptier centres and hence less retail footfall.

This change in people’s workplaces will inevitably affect the composition of town centres. In some places, we might see a migration of coffee shops and retail stores into residential areas, closer to where people live, rather than where they work: market towns and other smaller urban centres, for example.

Lahari Ramuni argued that, whilst around 50% of Londoners are able to work from home, in cities and towns with a higher proportion of manufacturing jobs, this number could be as low as 5-10%, and hence there will be regional variations in this trend.

The need to move away from a materialistic mindset

In many places across the UK, high streets look and feel identical. The same brands and multinational companies are selling the exact same products.

Since the 1990s, and the ‘race for space’ by retailers, to take on more high street units, many smaller, independent businesses have been replaced by corporate giants. This transition has been supported by rising rents on retail units.

Prof Saskia Sassen argued that the growing dominance of high finance and a materialistic mindset have led to similar changes in town centres across the world. In New York, for instance, anything can now be transformed into an asset. She argued that, in the worst case, financial systems continue to financialise every available urban space, until they leave only non-functioning spaces behind.

For town centres across the world, this focus on extracting value, without keeping the needs of local communities in mind, increasingly leaves city centres feeling impersonal, cold and empty.

Creating community-focused town centres

Cllr Matthew Brown argued that if high streets are dominated by the same big brand stores, residents are less likely to volunteer, vote, or engage in their local community. This is a strong argument for not letting assets and rent prizes define our town centres.

The ‘Preston Model’, devised in response to the financial crisis, focuses on moving away from a commercial mindset and reclaiming town centres for the community. At the forefront of this effort is the need to support local businesses.

These businesses help to keep money in communities; for every pound spent in a local store, more than 60p is  reinvested into the community, in comparison to 40p or less for each pound spent in a bigger shop [1].

To help small local businesses to thrive, towns and cities need to play an economic balancing act. In many places, local businesses can only afford to rent units in town centres if property owners consider rent reductions. In addition, governments and local authorities need to understand the impact that impersonal spaces have on communities, and invest their money more wisely.

However, in order for high streets to become more inclusive, Cllr Matthew Brown stressed that it is crucial to support deprived communities in becoming more invested in the reimagination of the high street.


[1] Seven Reasons to Shop Locally, Joanne O’Connell, The Guardian,