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Re-Designing Town Centres Across Northern England

The share of total retail sales that were made online last year reached 27%, up from 19% in 2019. While the percentage of retail sales made online has been rising for decades, it was only increasing by around one percentage point per year (18% in 2018 for example), so the sudden jump, and the resulting loss to traditional retailers has been a crushing blow, especially after enforced lockdowns had already decimated profits.

The national vacancy rate for retail is around 14%, which means that roughly one-in-seven retail sites are empty. But all is not lost for retail landlords and planning and development consultancy Lichfields has identified several opportunities for England’s northern towns in its new 30-page report entitled Moving on up? Levelling-up town centres across northern England.

The report states: ‘Last year was hugely challenging for our town and city centres. As the global pandemic continues and lockdowns come and go, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers have disappeared from high streets across the country. Neither Debenhams, nor Arcadia’s high profile Topshop or Burton brands, were able to secure buyers for their existing retail units, and those stores now add to the everincreasing level of vacancy on the high street. These stores alone span 562 retail units, totalling almost 1.4m sqm of floor space, or the equivalent of around 200 football pitches.’

According to Lichfields, the town and city centres in the North of England have suffered more than most in recent years, even before the pandemic, due to weak local economies. Of most concern is the fact that retail and leisure jobs across the Northern regions account for over 25% of total jobs.

The high street in crisis
Even before the pandemic, town and city centres across the UK were facing a perfect storm. The unstoppable rise of online retailing, shifts in consumer behaviour towards convenience, strong competition from out of centre retail, and a disproportionate business rates burden combined to cause major structural damage to many of our town centres.

This led to increased vacancy rates and significant reductions in rental levels. Centres lower down the retail hierarchy were particularly hard hit, with research undertaken by Lichfields in conjunction with property agents across the North East and Yorkshire areas showing a decrease in Prime Zone A Rents of more than 50% between 2004 and 2019 in many locations, and significant rises in commercial yields.

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