Debenhams’ collapse, just days before restrictions on Christmas shopping lifted, is another reminder of the difficulties that many high street businesses are facing.
The latest data from Centre for Cities’ High Streets Recovery Tracker shows that, immediately before November’s lockdown, city centre footfall hovered around half of pre-March levels. A long-term shift towards homeworking and changes in consumer habits could mean it never again reaches pre-pandemic levels.
This presents a challenge for policy-makers. As well as being an important source of jobs, people’s pride in their place is linked to the vibrancy of their high street, so boarded up shops are a depressing and symbolic symptom of local decline.
Commentators blame online shopping for the bricks-and-mortar retailers’ struggles. This is an overly simplistic conclusion.
Recent Centre for Cities’ analysis of consumer spending found no link between the popularity of online shopping and the decline of the high street. In Cambridge, the UK’s online shopping capital, almost 30% of all spending is done online yet only 7% of high street units lie vacant.
The opposite is true in Burnley, where the biggest share of shopping is still done the traditional way. There, 81% of all spending is done in person, yet almost 20% of the town’s high street units sit empty.
This pattern can be seen right across the UK. In economically weaker cities less people shop online, yet retailers still struggle.
So, the fundamental cause of high street decline is simple: a lack of local spending power. People are typically paid more in Cambridge so they have more money to spend, both online and offline, than people in Burnley do.
Vibrant high streets need vibrant cities and towns. Once we recognise this we can begins to develop realistic strategies to transform high streets. These should be focused around attracting high-skilled businesses into our cities and improving the skills of people so they can get the better-paid job opportunities that will be created.
This is not a quick fix, but it is the only way to bring about sustainable improvements to the high street. Without it, Debenhams will not be the last household name to fail.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities