From recessions to resurgence: the Fellowship revealing the secrets of the high street

The Great British high street has had a tumultuous history, surviving world wars, shortages, recessions, austerity and now emerging from its greatest threat to date; Covid-19. Despite every hardship, the high street has proved remarkably resilient over the years, and still occupies a special place in the hearts of the British public.

This topic is the focus of research by David Rudlin, the recipient of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’s Built Environment Fellowship in 2019. Fellows of this programme are granted funds to explore an important theme relating to the UK’s infrastructure and environment. Now in the midst of his two-year project, Rudlin and his team from URBED+ have been tasked with researching 100 different high streets across the UK. The end result of this project will be an open-source online compendium of 100 high streets, and a book of hand-drawn illustrations, maps and infographics presenting the conclusions drawn from two years of study. URBED+ is a partnership between URBED (Urbanism, Environment and Design Ltd.) and the Manchester school of Architecture.

Having gone through crisis after crisis, from the introduction of the first supermarkets, to the downfall of major department stores like Debenhams and BHS, the UK high street might seem like a lost cause. Several key insights have already been drawn from David’s studies so far, that contribute to our understanding of the high street and its future. One clear finding is that the problems had been clear well before the coronavirus pandemic. 30,000 shops closed in the two years leading up to the pandemic a loss of 2,750 jobs every week.

The market had become saturated, with the UK having twice the amount of retail floor space per head as Germany. In towns and cities up and down the country large chains had come to dominate our ‘clone town’ high streets and many of them had become complacent. These large chains, or ‘multiples’, are the ones that have suffered most and it’s important to recognise that high streets are the victim of their collapse rather than the cause. Indeed before lockdown, in high streets from Exeter to Dundee, there were signs of rejuvenation as independent business filled the voids left by failed multiples.

This is the silver lining - in most of the case studies, independents outnumber the multiples in terms of shop units if not floor space. In London’s West End 74% of shops are independent, and across all of the high streets we studied (excluding malls) 61% of shops are independents. They include artisan coffee shops, craft beer-houses and speciality delicatessens, but also vaping shops and barbers – two sectors that have seen the biggest growth. The untold story of the high street that David’s fellowship is uncovering is less about Top Shop and more about independents - reversing a trend first seen in the 1950s as people choose to spend money on experiences over ‘things’.

Of course, Covid may have thrown a spanner in the works of the rise of the independents. We don’t yet know how many have survived successive lockdowns. It is also a phenomenon most seen in affluent centres. Altrincham-style markets will not suit every town, and the research is paying particular attention to so called ‘left behind places’. But the appetite is clearly there, with people turning away from the mass-produced and imported, in favour of the convenient, local, and higher-quality.

An interesting by-product of Covid-19 regulations is that suburban high streets and those in smaller towns have not been as negatively affected. The increase in working from home, and the digital workplace, have mostly impacted the cities with large commuter populations. This reverses a trend that was seen pre-pandemic when many retailers were concentrating in the cities at the expense of smaller towns. The long-term impact of people maybe working a couple of days a week at home may therefore also have a major impact on the fortunes of smaller centres.

Understanding the economic impact of Covid-19 on highstreets, and how it could affect their future, has clear value for shaping how the UK builds back from the pandemic recession. David Rudlin has worked in planning for his entire career, jumping straight from University to Manchester city council. In his early career he was part of the team responsible for the redevelopment of Hulme, and has since moved on to write several books about Urban Planning. He has been a principal director of URBED for 29 years, and is a past Chair of the Academy of Urbanism. Rudlin won the Wolfson Economics Prize in 2014 for his work on garden cities, urging for the expansion of cities in a sustainable, green fashion whilst providing housing for up to 150,000 new residents.

The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 is currently looking for its next partner for the Built Environment Research Fellowship, welcoming applications from social entrepreneurs, ecologists, community groups and landowners, as well as built environment professionals. Recipients will receive a grant of £50k per year for two years, and it should culminate in a milestone output of significance. The theme this year is Restoring Nature in the City – the Commission is looking for applicants who can use innovative thinking to explore the pioneering approaches to restore nature in cities, and who can unpick the art of the possible and devise potentially transformative initiatives at a local or city-wide scale.

The Built Environment Fellowship is one of 35-post graduate awards made annually, contributing to the Commission’s mission to bring science and art together with industry to create a more productive and sustainable tomorrow. For more information visit