The decline of the English and Welsh High Street, mapped

Oh dear. Image: Getty.

Across the UK, retailers are struggling to survive. This is down to several factors: years of austerity and low wage growth has meant that households have less spending power, the cost of imported goods has risen – as has the national minimum wage – and the trend of “bricks to clicks” means more consumers are shopping online, from the convenience of their home, than in store.

This is not just bad news for retailers. Empty shop fronts blight the high street in towns and cities across country. Research I conducted, together with the R3intelligence team at Northumbria University, found that retail is in decline across most of England and Wales, with just a few areas bucking the trend.

By comparing the government’s own data on business rates – based on values from 2008 to 2015, and made available in the 2010 and 2017 rating lists – we have been able to analyse changes in the number and value of retail properties across England and Wales over that period. The map below shows how the average “rateable” value of retail floorspace – which is its estimated value on the open rental market – has changed in each local authority.

Change to the average rateable value of retail floorspace from 2008 to 2015. Image: Paul Greenhalgh/author provided.

In the green areas, rateable values – and market rents – have increased. But most local authorities across England and Wales have experienced a decline in values. In fact, in two-thirds of local authorities (231 of 348), values fell by up to 20 per cent between 2008 and 2015. South Wales in particular has experienced the most significant decrease in values where towns such as Swansea, Port Talbot and Bridgend are still reeling from the decline of the steel industry.

The exception to the general trend is central London, where the inner cluster of boroughs experienced large increases in value – aside from the City of London, where there’s relatively little retail floorspace. The highest increase was recorded in Westminster, where the average rateable value for retail premises grew by almost 80 per cent; a few rural areas also experienced large increases, exaggerated due to the small aggregate retail floorspace.

Shrinking shop space

Even more shocking is the reduction in retail floorspace across the country between 2008 and 2015. In all but five local authorities in England and Wales, total retail floorspace shrank – in more than two-thirds of local authorities, floorspace shrank by over 20 per cent.

Change in retail floorspace from 2008 to 2015. Image: Paul Greenhalgh. Image: Paul Greenhalgh/author provided.

In 2008, there were more than 157m square metres of retail floorspace. By 2015, this had fallen to just under 114m square metres, which represents a reduction of 27.6 per cent. Even in London, all but one borough experienced a decline in retail floorspace: Newham was the exception here, having reaped the benefits of Westfield’s Stratford City shopping centre which opened in time for the London 2012 Olympics.

The killer combination of falling values and reduced floorspace is illustrated in our third map, which reveals that 95 per cent of local authorities (331 out of 348) recorded significant decreases in the total rateable value of all the retail premises in their area, over the seven-year period. This is important because the rateable value is the basis on which business rates are levied – the lower the value, the lower the tax revenue generated by local authorities.

A sobering message

The areas in dark orange present the most acute signs of distress in the retail sector. These aren’t only areas experiencing post-industrial decline, such as South Wales, Barrow in Furness, Bristol, Hull, Teesside and Tyneside – they also include local authorities across the English and Welsh shires.

Some central London boroughs have fared better, with Newham revealed to be the only area in England and Wales where total rateable values have increased by more than 40 per cent. Retail spaces in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Westminster also grew in value.

Change in total rateable value from 2008 to 2015. Image: Paul Greenhalgh/author provided.

Our analysis delivers a sobering message: across most of England and Wales, the revenue generated from business rates on retail properties has diminished significantly. Local authorities in England and Wales – hit by significant funding cuts during austerity – are increasingly exposed to the vagaries of commercial real estate markets, since they now depend more on income from business rates to pay for local services.


There are a few success stories, one being the apparent renaissance of retailing in Corby in the East Midlands. The town is one of only a few areas outside central London to record an increase in both retail floorspace and value between 2008 and 2015, in part due to the success of the Willow Place shopping centre in the centre of the former steel town. For the most part, though, the outlook for retail across much of the UK remains bleak.

The Conversation

Paul Michael Greenhalgh, Professor of Real Estate and Regeneration, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.