Revealed: The UK high streets where shopping is surging — as London lags behind

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Shoppers on Oxford Street, London on Wednesday 21st April 2021.  Photo: Tejas Sandhu/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Shoppers on Oxford Street, London last month. Photo: Tejas Sandhu/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

London’s high streets have experienced some of the weakest recoveries in the country as lockdown restrictions ease and consumers return to stores, new data published on Thursday revealed.

The capital was joined by Aldershot, Oxford and Birmingham on Centre for Cities’ list of cities in the UK where spending levels are the lowest.

Meanwhile shops in Huddersfield, Basildon and Blackburn saw some of the strongest recoveries.

“April’s lifting of lockdown restrictions provided a much-needed boost to many high streets as spending surged to pre-pandemic levels in more than half of Britain’s cities and large towns – but cities are continuing to struggle,” the report said.

“We can already see that the vaccination programme and lifting of lockdown is helping businesses get back on their feet. Many cities and towns, particularly those in Northern England and the Midlands, have seen a boom in consumer spending in the past month," said the centre's CEO Andrew Carter.

Chart: Centre for Cities
Chart: Centre for Cities

But he added that “it’s not all good news” as “the centres of our biggest cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester remain quiet as people there continue to work from home.”

“If this doesn’t change in the next few months I’d expect to see more people working in retail and hospitality in our biggest city centres lose their jobs. The government must work with the newly-elected metro mayors to stop this happening.”

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The findings suggests that spending in Britain’s large towns and smaller cities are recovering faster than in its largest urban centres.

Chart: Centre for Cities
Chart: Centre for Cities

Northern England and the Midlands is so far recovering faster than elsewhere – of the 35 places studied where spending has returned to pre-pandemic levels, 20 are in the North and Midlands.

Although spending in Scottish cities is the lowest in the UK in April, this might be because retail and hospitality opened on a later date than in England.

While high street spending in many larger cities remains below pre-lockdown levels, it is now significantly higher than it was this time last year, suggesting that consumer confidence is returning.

“The government and England’s newly elected metro mayors must set out plans to encourage people to return to the centres of our largest cities,” the report said.

Earlier this week, figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) showed total sales in Britain increased by 7.3% across the month of April, compared to the same month in 2019, as restrictions eased for non-essential stores under Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown. 

Read more: Shops 'not out of the woods' as people return to UK high streets

This was above the three-month average growth of 6%.

But BRC chief Helen Dickinson warned that sales growth was “fragile”, with high streets still having “a long way to go on the path to recovery”.

The future of many stores still hangs in the balance as some 530,000 people who work in retail are still on furlough, and business rates relief in England comes to an end in June.

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