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The Resilience of British High Streets to the COVID-19 Lockdown Restrictions
CDRC researchers have released a new classification that sorts 500 British high streets into four categories based on their resilience to the COVID-19 lockdowns. This information can inform responses to the ongoing impacts that the pandemic has had on the high street, and help to explain how some retail areas have fared better than others since lockdown restrictions were lifted.
On 24th March 2020 Britain went into the first COVID-19 lockdown with a government mandate that closed premises deemed ‘non-essential’ such as pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues. It was not until 12th April 2021 in England and Wales and 20th April 2021 in Scotland that restrictions were lifted and bricks and mortar non-essential retail could fully.
These restrictions created a two-tier high street with the non-essential retailers closed (unless they offered takeaway food and drink in sealed containers), but their neighbouring essential retailers - such as food shops, supermarkets, hardware stores, off licences, petrol stations, and banks – remaining open.
To better quantify the impacts of the lockdowns CDRC researchers have harnessed data from the Local Data Company (1) and developed a resilience typology for the majority of Britain’s high streets. According to this measure a high street is resilient if it successfully returned to pre-lockdown conditions or has adapted to the wider social and economic changes we are experiencing.
Four indicators were chosen to capture the high street conditions prior to the pandemic restrictions and those that prevailed once restrictions were lifted. These were:
- The percentage of vacant stores on each high street from January – June 2019 (pre-COVID).
- The percentage of stores that were new to each high street from January – June 2019.
- The percentage of stores that were allowed to remain open during the pandemic based on the government's list of essential retail types.
- The number of vacant premises post-restrictions (June 2021).
These values were then fed into a cluster analysis (see here for full details of the method used) that placed each high street into one of four categories.
The category ranked as having the highest resilience reflects high streets that are stable, had low pre-pandemic vacancy and a high proportion of essential stores and services that were allowed to remain open during COVID-19 lockdowns. In comparison, the least-resilient category includes those high streets with unstable conditions, high pre-pandemic vacancy and a high proportion of stores that were forced to close during the lockdowns. Mapping the results reveals a distinctive geography to each of these categories.
The resilience categories reveal that some high streets located in London, the Southeast, the East of England and Cardiff with average occupier change, low pre-pandemic vacancy and high essential stores or services and convenience proportion have had the lowest rise in vacancy following the lockdown restrictions. This group of high streets included Northolt Road in Harrow (London), with the highest proportion of essential stores at 72%, and Wanstead High Street (London), which had the lowest vacancy rate following the lockdown restrictions at 2%.
Within the least resilient cluster of high streets is Swansea which had a rise of 9.3% in vacancy and the City of London with a 9.7% rise. Specifically, the disproportionate rise in vacancy for the City of London could arguably lie in the reduced commuter population to the area caused by the lockdown restrictions. Plotting the percentage of essential stores along each high street going into the pandemic with the vacancy rates after the pandemic also reveals a structure. The likes of Northolt Road with its many ‘traditional’ necessities such as banks, pharmacies, grocers and supermarkets alongside other categories that were allowed to remain open during lockdowns such as takeaways sits to the bottom right. In contrast, Swansea high street was situated within the category with the lowest levels of resilience due to its unstable conditions, high pre-pandemic vacancy and high proportion of stores which were forced to close during the lockdowns.
Why is the resilience measure useful?
Following the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions some high streets are more vulnerable to economic and social shock based on both their pre-existing success or weakness and the likelihood of the premises within their high streets to face the COVID-19 crisis. The resilience measure can be used to identify those high streets that would most likely benefit from intervention strategies to promote recovery and revitalisation following the lockdowns.
The CDRC’s measure of high street resilience offers a specific insight into the geographic distribution of high street success following the COVID-19 pandemic. The dataset provides the quantification of ‘resilience’ and supports the development of geographically targeted policies can be tailored to promoting adaptive resilience in vibrant areas or stability in those areas which have unstable occupier conditions.
Local Data Company – Retail type, vacancy and address dataset. Available at: https://data.cdrc.ac.uk/dataset/local-data-company-retail-type-vacancy-a...
Hill, A. and Cheshire, J., 2022. An Investigation of the Impact and Resilience of British high streets following the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy, pp.1-23. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12061-022-09494-8