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Post-Covid vulnerability of city and town centres in England revealed

By Andrew Sansom 14 Jan 2021 0

High streets in England following the pandemic will need to become cultural and recreational centres to attract businesses and jobs. So says Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, in response to a new report that examines the outlook for towns and cities across England in the wake of Covid-19.

It’s unlikely a return to old commuting habits will be seen post-Covid, says the KPMG report, ‘The future of towns and cities post Covid-19’, with a significant proportion of those able to work from home doing so for at least part of the week. It estimates the loss of commuter footfall in England could be close to a third seen prior to the pandemic in some places, with Hemel Hempstead and Bracknell, for example, set to see up to 27.4 per cent of office work performed from home.

The report, which looks at 109 cities and towns across England, finds that alongside the reduction in commuter footfall, the accelerated shift to online shopping is exacerbating the vacuum in city and town centres. According to the analysis, high streets could lose between 20 and 40 per cent of their retail offerings as a result, which could affect 1-5 per cent of the local workforce. This could equate to more than 400,000 job losses on the high street.

Looking at existing offerings across sports facilities, culture and recreation assets, and hospitality venues, the report shows larger cities enjoy a clear advantage in their ability to provide a large and varied cultural offering to visitors. Smaller towns, by contrast, tend to focus on fewer types of attractions and score lower.

As people travel less for work or to shop, town and city centres will need alternative offerings to fill vacant space and to attract people to the area as we hopefully leave the pandemic behind sometime this year,” points out Selfin. “High streets will need to be reimagined as cultural and recreational hubs that will act as magnets for businesses and jobs able to transform less prosperous areas.”

Combining the impact of home working and loss of retail outlets with the strength of current cultural assets, the report calculated an index of vulnerability for towns and cities in England, as the changes arising from the pandemic pull them in different directions.

Larger cities like London, Liverpool and Birmingham benefit from a strong cultural offering that partially compensates for the loss in commuter footfall and retail outlets on the high street. At the other end of the scale, places like Warrington and Basingstoke are hit relatively hard by the loss of commuter footfall and retail offering, while they also have a more limited cultural offering to attract people to their centres.

The size of London makes it a relative outlier as it does not have a single contiguous city centre in a traditional sense. The score for London combines the relatively diverse character of areas such as Canary Wharf, focusing on office space, and the West End of London, with its large number of cultural amenities. The analysis suggests it’s unlikely that the strength of cultural amenities on offer in one part of the city can compensate for the loss of commuter footfall in a different part, leading to the resilience of some parts of London potentially being tested.

Said Selfin: “The pandemic has added a new dimension to the levelling-up agenda (the Government’s stated intention to address geographical inequality and ‘level up’ underperforming and left-behind parts of the UK through a programme of infrastructure development, and other investment). While some of the more deprived areas may be less impacted by the pandemic directly, as they had a smaller proportion of office workers and retail space to start with in their centres, they will still need to rethink their path for growth in light of the changes brought about by it.

“Our findings offer only a glimpse of locations’ starting point. It highlights some of those that may need to go further in developing new ways to attract people to their centres compared with others where the offering is already relatively rich. Covid-19 has made it essential for places to galvanise their centres for the new way of living.” 

Chris Hearld, head of regions at KPMG UK, commented: “As we leave the pandemic behind, towns and cities across the UK will need help and space to rethink the purpose of their centres. Fostering collaboration between businesses and local policy makers can help rethink the journey to work with a focus on lower carbon, more customer-orientated and better-connected transport networks, and it will be important to prioritise investment in high-speed broadband and 5G connectivity.”

Across all three categories, home working, retail, and cultural assets, data was used from the Business Register and Employment Survey on the number of employees in each sector and how these compare with other cities. The index score was constructed as a simple average of the z-scores obtained for each category. The z-scores were calculated as the difference between the observation for each city and the average across all cities, with this difference divided by the standard deviation of all observations in the sample. The score for the impacts of remote working and of the vulnerability of the high street were inverted, so that higher values indicated greater resilience.

The top five towns and cities for pandemic resilience were: London (1.32); Liverpool (0.97); Birmingham (0.88); Burnley (0.88); and Leicester (0.87). The bottom five were: Guildford (-0.88); Warrington (-1.32); Basingstoke (-1.70); Hemel Hempstead (-1.80); and Bracknell (-2.55).

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