Weak city centres have too many shops, and five other things we learned from the latest Centre for Cities report

Oh dear. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

The supply, type and quality of available commercial space is a key variable in a city’s economy success, probably.

I say “probably”, because we don’t actually know for sure: nobody has bothered to check what commercial property is available in different cities, and whether there is really any difference between those that are vibrant and those that are struggling.

Until now – because those pioneers at the Centre for Cities (CfC) have done it again. In its new Building Blocks report, the think tank has analysed the composition of commercial space in UK cities, and charted how it varies between weak and strong economies.

It can sometimes be a bit tough to work out which way causality runs here: just as the property available will influence a city’s economic performance, so its economy will influence the local property market. But with that caveat out there, here’s what we learned.

1. City centres look very different from their suburbs

Hey look, some charts!

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These pie charts show the breakdown of different type of commercial property in city centres and their suburbs across the UK.

Retail and, especially, offices dominate the city centres, making up a combined 76 per cent of all commercial property – nearly three times as big a share as the 27 per cent in the suburbs. With warehousing and industrial facilities, the picture is revered: 62 per cent in the suburbs, compared to just 13 per cent in the centres.

You can see this trend in individual cities, too. Here’s the same data but this time only for Leicester:

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The centre is 67 per cent office or retail, and 16 per cent industry or warehouse. For the suburbs, those numbers are 20 per cent and 71 per cent.

In short: the centres get the offices, and the suburbs get the warehouses. This is no huge surprise, but it’s always nice to put numbers on your hunch.

2. Economically successful city centres have more offices

To demonstrate this, we first need to define what success looks like. Drawing on earlier CfC research, the report defines its terms thus:

Strong city centres have a higher than average share of jobs in exporting firms, and a higher than average share of these exporting jobs are high-skilled.

2. Weak city centres have a lower than average share of jobs in exporting firms, and a lower than average share of these are high-skilled.

Helpfully enough, there’s a graph. Basically, if you want your city to be rich, you want to be top right.

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So, that behind us, how do strong and weak centres differ? Basically, like this:

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Strong city centres have a nearly three times as big a share of their commercial space dedicated to offices (62 per cent, compared to 23 per cent in weak centres). They also have a far smaller share of commercial space dedicated to retail (43 per cent, compared to 18 per cent).

Once again, you can see this in individual cities. Here’s Leeds compared to Doncaster:

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3. Economically successful city centres don’t just have more offices: they have better ones, too

The report uses energy efficiency ratings as a proxy for building quality – on the grounds that newer, or more recently refurbished, buildings will get higher ratings.

Here are those ratings plotted against the share of a space accounted for by offices. The light green dots – representing strong city centres – tend to do well on both.

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4. Weak city centres have too many shops

“Weak city centres dominated by retail do not have enough demand to sustain all these shops,” the report says, “which is why so many lie empty.”

Here’s a map of cities showing vacancy rates:

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With a few exceptions – booming Warrington has loads of empty space; Liverpool, which is often seen as struggling, has hardly any – this looks a lot like the map of city economic performance we all know and love.

5. Higher skilled suburbs are more  office-y and less warehouse-y than lower skilled ones

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Which is probably what you’d expect. (“Higher skilled” here means “more jobs in high-skilled sectors”.) But the differences are relatively minor: there’s less variation in suburbs than there is in city centres.

That said, there are very striking differences between the suburbs of individual cities. Here are York and Northampton:

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The share of Northampton given over to warehouses is 18 times that of York. Whoa.

6. Suburbs often have better offices, too

Last one, but it’s a strange one. Check out the quality of office space in different types of city and their suburbs:

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The weaker the city centre, the more likely it is to have poor quality offices – and the greater the gap with its suburbs.

This is strange, at first glance. But it probably reflects the difficulty of attracting property investment in certain cities – and perhaps also a tendency, by weaker cities, to invest in out of town office parks.


I’m going to stop there. But if you want to know more, you can download the full Building Blocks report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.