The problems facing high streets up and down Britain are laid bare by analysis of official data showing the struggles that retailers were already facing before the Covid pandemic hit.
In the three years to 2018, retail employment had declined across all regions, except in the north-west of England, according to the report for the Office for National Statistics.
Across Great Britain, 29% of high street addresses were retailers in March, a figure that was slightly lower than in 2018. Meanwhile, one in 10 high street addresses were offices, raising questions about the impact on trade in nearby shops while people continue to work from home.
The state of the high street has caused concern for at least a decade, with the government commissioning several reviews of how to make it more sustainable.
The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already causing problems for areas dependent on retail and hospitality for jobs, and led to discussions about turning shops into homes. The analysis of ONS data showed that in 2018 there were 4,397,240 people employed in businesses on British high streets, equivalent to 14% of all employment. This was made up of workers in retail, offices, food services and other industries, all of which have been affected by the crisis.
In the three years to 2018, retail employment fell in more than three-quarters of local authority areas, and since then it has continued to fall. Waves of shop closures in 2019 have been followed by a string of collapses during and since lockdown, with the result of thousands of job losses.
Across Britain, 11% of high street addresses were offices in March, the report showed, although the figure varied around the country. The highest proportion of offices was in Merthyr Tydfil, where 38% of addresses were registered as offices, although this was out of just 365 addresses.
In Westminster, 31% of high street addresses were offices, while in Blackpool the figure was 28%. With research suggesting that just a third of UK white-collar workers have returned to the office, high street retailers reliant on office workers for footfall could be struggling.
Mark Robinson, chair of the High Streets Task Force, said high numbers of office workers were important for retailers. “The most successful places for retail have the most people working there as well – so having lots of people coming into work for councils, offices, and other employers is good for high streets,” he said. “We need to encourage more people to work in our town centres.”
In several large towns and cities, students make up more than a quarter of those residents, which means if they do not return to university in the autumn, high streets could see lower footfall.
Matthew Williams, a director at PwC who works with the taskforce, said the report provided “some clues that Covid is a catalyst for change that was already happening”.
Last week PwC published a study of how four areas had coped since lockdown loosened, which showed that while Windsor and Cleethorpes had seen footfall bounce back, recovery was slower in Manchester and Ashford in Kent.
“Not all the changes will be the same. What we’ve started to see is a divergence of what is happening in different towns and on different high streets,” Williams said.