Transforming the vitality and viability of the UK’s high streets

Impact Area: Business, economy and employment

Institution: Institute of Place Management (IPM) at Manchester Metropolitan University

Leading Academic: Professor Cathy Parker and Dr Steve Millington

Project background

UK town centres are experiencing a period of turbulent change. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) forecast the closure of approximately 31,000 stores over three years, with an estimated 552,500 job losses (CRR, 2019). Yet, as pressures on town centres intensify, place stakeholders responsible for managing them do not know how to respond effectively to such changes, nor typically how to anchor their decision-making within research evidence. The long-term trends underpinning these forecasts, and the subsequent impacts on the social and cultural fabric of UK towns, have been investigated by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University since the late 1990s.

Formed in 2006, IPM is the international professional body for place managers working with practitioners and policy-makers to support town, city and district centre change and is based at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Business School.

The Research

High Street UK 2020 (HSUK2020)

Academics at Manchester Metropolitan have been studying and predicting high street change for nearly 30 years; however, it became clear that retailers and other place stakeholders responsible for managing change on the high street do not know how to respond effectively to such changes; nor do they typically anchor their decision-making within research. The ESRC-funded HSUK2020 project aimed to address such concerns. IPM researchers worked collaboratively with ten UK towns to develop a set of criteria that can be used to analyse and identify opportunities to improve high streets, as well as other smaller centres.

Bringing Big Data to Small Users (BDSU)

The Innovate UK-funded BDSU project, which aimed to enhance evidence-based decision-making on the high street, is a collaboration between IPM, Springboard, Cardiff University, and MyKnowledgeMap. The research team analysed a large volume of historical footfall data provided by project partners Springboard (showing centre activity patterns) for 150 town and city centre locations across the UK. This information enabled the team to identify four distinct ‘footfall signature’ types, as well as develop state-of-the-art dashboard products to enable place stakeholders to make more collaborative and informed decisions about the future of towns and cities.

Covid-19 Recovery

Throughout the pandemic, IPM has responded to national priorities pivoting to support place leaders and local authorities throughout the crisis. Researchers have designed a COVID-19 Recovery Framework based on their insights into the key drivers of vitality and viability, which offers a model to support places through crisis, pre-recovery, recovery and transformation stages of the pandemic. It enables place managers and other stakeholders to develop a coordinated and systematic approach for recovery and improvement.

The impact

IPM’s work has had a significant impact on enhancing the vitality and viability of high streets and town centres both within the UK and internationally; ensuring their sustainability into the future and anchoring the research findings within local, national, and international place management policies. The research IPM has conducted directly fed into the government’s decision to create a £675 million Future High Streets Fund to support the renewal and reshaping of high streets and town centres. In 2019, IPM was also awarded an £8.6 million contract to lead the High Streets Task Force and currently head up a consortium of place management stakeholders and high street experts in providing expertise to those involved in helping regenerate towns and cities across the country.

In April 2021, the Task Force announced the first 70 local authorities in England to receive government funding and in February 2022 a further 68 local authorities were identified to receive a package of support to transform towns and cities, backed by research from IPM. Under the leadership of IPM, the High Streets Task Force has appointed 150 independent experts from the professional bodies Design Council, Landscape Institute and the Royal Town Planning Institute to work with places, bringing their insight and expertise to town centres.

Dr Steve Millington, Director of the IPM at Manchester Metropolitan and Academic Lead for the High Streets Task Force, said: “We are delighted to be leading this work to support 68 areas across the country. It is at a time when we know local authorities and local communities have a range of pressures and opportunities, in particular building back after the impact of COVID-19 and responding to long-term priorities such as climate change.”

Further information and the full list of local authorities selected for support is available on the High Streets Task Force website.