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City centres urged to end reliance on retail

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Struggling city centres must end their reliance on the declining retail sector to turn around their economic fortunes.

That is the message from research by the Centre for Cities thinktank which said too many city centres were over-dependent on retail and should substitute offices, housing and public spaces for vacant shops.

Recent failures of major chains have included Maplin, Poundworld and Toys R Us, while Marks & Spencer, Mothercare, and most recently House of Fraser have announced store closure programmes.

It said that retail accounted for twice as much space as offices in struggling city centres, while those that were successful had three times more office space than retail.

Across England and Wales there was an average of 16% vacant premises in city centres, and retail made up 40% of space. Within this though there were significant differences:

Share of vacant retail lots in England and Wales city centres, 2017-2018

Top five with most high street retail vacancies

  • Newport 28%
  • Blackpool 24%
  • Bradford 24%
  • Wigan 22%
  • Sheffield 21%

Top 5 with fewest high street retail vacancies

  • Cambridge 8%
  • Brighton 8%
  • Exeter 8%
  • London 9%
  • Worthing 9%

Centre for Cities said struggling city centres should create a better environment for firms in sectors such as ICT, legal services, insurance and marketing by tackling skills gaps, improving transport infrastructure and making good quality office space available.

They should also make their city centres better places in which to live, work and for leisure, changing the use of surplus shops to amenities, housing, public space or parks.

Chief executive Andrew Carter said: “Each day seems to bring a new crisis for the high street, but the answer is not to double down on the declining retail sector.

“Instead, we need to reimagine struggling city centres as places where lots of different businesses can locate and create jobs – and where lots of people want to go to for a variety of reasons.”

Giulia Bunting, planning director at GL Hearn, part of research co-sponsor Capita Real Estate and Infrastructure, said the government should level rates and taxes for physical stores and online operators and “support for the re-invention of places and introducing more flexible platform to harness new opportunities for regeneration/repurposing.”


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