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The Crisis in the UK’s High Streets: can the Evening and Nighttime Economy Help?

Marion Roberts


Changes in retailing over the last half century have had a detrimental effect on the UK’s local high streets. The recession of 2008-2012 exacerbated these trends leading to a high number of vacancies and neglected properties. The impact was sufficiently severe for the term ‘crisis’ to be used in connection with the British high street. In the academic and commercial reports generated by the recognition that the high street needed to adapt to changing circumstances, a view emerged that the leisure component of high street activity would gain in importance. This article reviews the relationship of the evening and nighttime economy to the high street and considers its potential in reinventing the vitality that is normally associated with these mixed-use urban corridors. The article argues that there is hope in the high street offering a different type of experience to the mainstream forms of entertainment that are consolidating in major town and city centres. It concludes by suggesting that for this to be successful, some public support is necessary.

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  • 1 The author would like to thank the University of Southampton who commissioned the research on which (...)

1The poor economic and physical state of British town centres has been a cause of concern to planners and policy makers for more than two decades (DoE/URBED 1994). Car dominance and changes in retailing have led to speculation that traditional high streets in small towns and urban centres might ‘die’. In response, central Government commissioned an independent report (Portas 2011) and subsequently invested a modest portion of public funds in initiatives in to improve town centres. In addition more evidence has been collected by academic and commercial researchers and published as journal articles and reports. In the recommendations offered by these studies the observation is made that ‘leisure’ and, nightlife as a component of leisure, is one area of activity in the high street that has not been eroded and indeed is capable of expansion. This article reviews such evidence as is available in reports and databases, including unpublished evidence from previous studies carried out by the author. The evidence is scattered, because the key data is not publicly available. The paper then discusses the potential means by which nightlife could be developed in smaller urban centres and considers pitfalls and benefits.

2Much of the research into the evening and night-time economy has been carried out in major city centres in England, drawing particularly on cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and London, (see for example Measham & Hadfield 2009, Shaw 2015, Hobbs et al 2003). Valentine et al’s (2008) study of a deep rural area and a secondary city and Leyshon’s (2008) research in rural areas form important exceptions. As nightlife in the UK has expanded, there has been some penetration into market towns and smaller urban centres. This presence is scattered and a contemporary report into the UK’s “distressed” town centres notes that many smaller towns “have a negligible evening economy” (Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce 2013:22). This paper turns attention to local high streets outside the main city centres.

3First, however, the geographical focus for this discussion needs to be clarified. While much of the commentary relates to the United Kingdom as a whole, Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate planning systems and in Scotland, different legal systems and traditions. Hence the discussion that follows applies to England and Wales. It is presented in four parts: the first sets the scene for the ‘crisis’ in the high street, the second discusses the evolution of the evening and night time economy (ENTE) and its relationship to the high street, the third draws together evidence on the impact of the recession in 2008 and 2012 and the fourth considers the arguments for an expansion of the ENTE in the continued evolution and adaptation of high streets. This section includes comparisons with approaches in other European states. The concluding comments carry forward an argument that an expansion in the ENTE, for it to be beneficial, would require support from the public sector.

Context for the High Street ‘Crisis’ in England and Wales

4The term 'high street' itself needs some clarification. Carmona's (2014) extensive review offers the explanation that the high street is typically a commercial street at the centre of a town or a village. Because much urban development in the UK extended along arterial routes, frequently high streets have formed mixed-use corridors within suburban or inner urban residential areas. Prior to industrialisation, high streets were at the centre of commercial and social life in relation to their hinterland. While high streets in mainland Europe typically have residents ‘living over the shop’ or the upper floors are occupied by offices, this pattern is less prevalent in the UK and there has been a persistent problem of vacancies above local high street retailing premises. Changes in shopping patterns have eroded the significance of local high streets, a process that has been on going from the 1950's.

5For example, between 1974 and 2012 retail floor space in England increased by 43m. sq. m (Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce 2013:12). Expansion has taken place in out of town shopping centres and retail parks as well as the centres of major conurbations. Prior to the mid-1990s planning favoured out of town developments and developers gained permissions and assembled and locked up land with the result that even when policy changed to a ‘town centres’ first approach, out of town shopping centres continued to be built. Increases in car ownership and the provision of free parking assisted the popularity of out of town retail and leisure parks, while traditional high streets suffered from car dominance, with traffic congestion and problems with loading and servicing (Jones, Roberts & Morris 2007). More recently, often with the laudable intention of reducing car use, local councils have also imposed high parking charges for high streets and town centres, thereby deterring visits. Retail requirements have changed too, with a demand for larger floorplates for ‘comparison’ shopping, which the typical English nineteenth century high street, with its terraces of narrow plots and fragmented ownership, is unable to provide (Carmona 2014).

6A further problem has been created by a lack of coherent management. While shopping centres are managed by one major owner or leaseholder, who can orchestrate the customer experience, local high streets have multiple owners, shops are frequently leased and the owner has little interest in maintaining or upgrading their property and the management of the high street is spread between different agencies and arms of local governance (Carmona et al 2008, Davis 1997).

7The recession of 2008-2012 deepened the crisis for many local high streets. The crash in consumer confidence due to the banking crisis at the end of 2007 and the subsequent squeeze on credit had the impact that the numbers of empty properties on high streets doubled from 7% in 2008 to 16.3% in 2012, but this reduced to 15.1% by end of 2013 (Wrigley & Lambiri 2014:4 source Colliers International National Retail Barometer). This effect was not spread evenly and the north of England suffered more than the south and high streets whose catchment consisted of low income households fared worse than those with a more affluent demographic. In addition to the influences noted above, the steady growth of Internet shopping throughout this period has also posed a threat to retailing (Grimsey 2013). For example in June 2014, 11.3% of all purchases were made over the internet (ONS 2014: Table 5).

8These trends suggest that the high street might indeed be in irreversible decline as a centre for retailing. Britain, it would seem, has too much retailing floor space and the sheer quantity needs to reduce. This has led academics and consultants to argue that high streets need to be repositioned around a greater variety of activities than retailing (Grimsey 2013, Carmona 2014, Distressed Towns Property Taskforce 2014). Leisure and evening and night time activities are highlighted in particular. While retailing is undermined by online purchasing, the evening and night time economy is augmented rather than undermined by the internet. Most evening and night time activities rely on face to face contact, through eating, drinking and socialising together. Research in the 1980s demonstrated the impact of cultural activities, such as going to the cinema, where people will meet for a drink or a meal either before or after.

Background: ENTE in the UK and its relationship to local high streets

9The expansion of the ‘night-time economy’ in the UK has been well documented (Chatterton & Hollands 2003, Hobbs, Hadfield, Lister, & Winlow, 2003, Roberts & Eldridge 2009). The literature identified key factors that influences changes in nightlife as being variously connected to the emergence of rave and subsequently dance culture, higher disposable incomes, changes in licensing legislation, a restructuring of the relationship between breweries and licensed premises, rapid increases in the numbers of students going to higher education (which in the UK normally involves living away from home) and the simultaneous appearance of vacant, large, but architecturally interesting buildings in town and city centres as a product of changes in the wider economy. The early literature mounted a critique of way in which corporate enterprises had penetrated into nightlife, arguing that major companies, some of which are well-known transnational brands, were driving small, independent and quirky operators out of the market (Hadfield, 2006; Hollands & Chatterton, 2002, 2003). The ‘hidden hand’ of the market was also given unwitting assistance by the police, who preferred to deal with corporate managers rather than a mix of venues run by new entrepreneurs from ethnic minority communities (Lovatt, 1996, Talbot, 2007, Talbot & Bose, 2007). The tendency towards concentration in major centres in the period 2006-2009 has been documented by Evans (2011).

10Changes in nightlife were not solely about ownership and corporate branding. The early literature pointed out how it was not only ‘alternative’ or independent venues that were being excluded by rising rents and an increased regulatory burden. Traditional public houses (pubs) were also threatened, although as Kynaston (2009) points out, a decline in the number of traditional public houses in the UK had been in evidence from the start of the twentieth century. Certainly a new typology of ‘high street’ bar/dance bar developed, a typology characterised by relatively youthful target clientele, where alcohol is consumed standing up and in which loud music is played at night, sometimes with an opportunity to dance (Muir 2012, Pratten 2003).

11This body of work would suggest that there would be a neat hierarchy within British nightlife, with major corporate bars and nightclubs located in the main town and city centres and a residual sector of traditional pubs and independent venues in the high streets of smaller town and local district centres. At the time of writing, there are no systematic studies of how nightlife in the UK is geographically distributed that are available to the public. Two commercial companies have databases and provide consultancy services. Certainly it would appear that individual high streets have their unique histories and at the moment it is impossible to provide a clear account of how configurations of nightlife are related to high streets in different sizes and types of settlement.

12The tendency for nightlife establishments to be ‘clustered’ or arranged along ‘drinking streets’ has been documented (Hayward & Hobbs 2007, Bromley & Millie 2001). These clusters or drinking streets are not necessarily coincident with high streets, although some form segments or sections of local high streets. For example, Whitley Bay, a coastal resort in the northeast of the UK has a street of bars and clubs perpendicular to its main high street, as does Windsor, a small historic town in the southeast. The reasons for this may be due to the legacy of historic morphology, that larger plots and premises are located on the side streets, or through planning policy, which places an emphasis on retailing as the primary purpose of urban centres (DCLG 2012).

13In tandem with an increase in ‘drinking places’, there has also been a growth in eating outside the home, frequently more directly related to regeneration (Bell 2007, Bell & Binnie 2005, Bell & Jayne 2004, McCarthy 2005). ‘Eating out’ in the UK context can encompass a variety of formats, from a take-away kebab after a night out, to a fast food restaurant, to an eclectic variety of restaurants. There has also been a merging of eating and drinking within different types of venue, for example Britain’s newest pub chain, JD Wetherspoon, include locally sourced, competitively priced food as part of their ‘brand’ offer. While major companies have also dominated the restaurant sector, for example The Restaurant Group owns over 400 restaurants, mostly in themed brands (The Restaurant Group, no date) and there is also a substantial independent sector. Cinema is still proving popular as a nighttime going out experience (Hubbard 2005), but the numbers of cinemas located in town centres and high streets has declined, with the growth of out-of-town leisure centres in the 1980s and 1990s.

14The proponents of the 24-hour city called for longer retailing opening hours, extending beyond 17.00 or 17.30, which was the norm in the 1980s (Comedia 1991, Heath 1997). Local convenience stores run by managers drawn mainly from ethnic minorities led the way in providing a service during the evening, but these tended to be located in areas with pre-existing ethnic minority populations. The first high street town centre small local convenience store was opened by Tesco, Britain’s largest food retailer in 1994 (Winterman 2013). This started a trend so that now many high streets have convenience stores owned by one of the large supermarkets, typically open until 23.00 hours at night.

Recession and Current Trends

15While the ‘shockwave’ of the recession that hit the UK in late 2007 and early 2008 had a dramatic and long lasting impact on retail in local high streets, it seemed to cause only a short ‘dip’ and some restructuring within the nightlife sector of the night-time economy. There was a reduction in turnover in large nightclubs, which eventually resulted in some operators changing their format (Mintel Oxygen 2013). Luminar, the owner of the nightclub in Camberley, which at that point was the largest nightclub operator in the UK, went into administration in 2011. Within two months, the company was purchased by industry specialists, including a former Chief Executive Officer and after two years of operation and a significant quantity of investment, had doubled its profits and repaid its shareholder loans. While many traditional pubs continued to go out of business during the recession, six a day in 2009, Wetherspoon actually increased its sales and planned an expansion programme (Datamonitor Researchstore 2009). In 2013, the UK’s respected business paper, the Financial Times commented that Wetherspoon’s growth had been achieved by cutting its profit margins and from taking a share of the market from independents (Thompson 2013).

16The available statistical sources suggest that as with other aspects of ‘going out’ eating outside the home saw a decrease in the first years of the recession, which was subsequently reversed (Grove, no date; Statista, no date). More reliable statistics collected by the UK government, estimate that there was a 10.5% decrease in spending within licensed premises between 2007 and 2011 (Holding, Carr & Stark 2012:16). This explains the commentary by the company, CGA Peach about openings and closures, that the number of drink led establishments declined in major cities between 2003 and 2013, yet the number of food led licensed premises increased in the same period (Peach Report 2014).

17As has been stated throughout this article, the combined mapping of the locations of these different premises and establishments has not been carried out. CGA Peach conducted an exercise using their own index and argue that cities have see the growth in eating and drinking establishments (Peach Report 2014). This is confirmed by a subscription only index maintained by Springboard, who reported a significant drop in footfall for night-time commercial premises in coastal towns and historic cities from 2013-2014, but compensated for a rise in footfall in regional cities (data supplied to author). This evidence supports the view that local high streets are indeed in ‘crisis’ and raises the question of whether some of the expansion in nighttime activities might be diverted to them.

The Potential for the ENTE to Reinvent Local High Streets

18This section examines the possibilities for encouraging the expansion of evening and night-time economy as a means for revitalising local high streets outside of major town and city centres. The economic reasons are compelling, the UK’s night-time economy has been valued at £66 billion, employs 1.3 million people and accounts for nearly 6% of GDP (Furedi 2015). As a counter argument, the damaging potential of an over-expansion of an alcohol led ENTE cannot be ignored. Increases in numbers of alcohol led premises are associated with rising incidents of crime and disorder, noise, litter and other forms of anti-social behaviour (Deehan 1999, Graham & Homel, 2008, Roberts & Eldridge 2009). These problems are not solely the property of the UK and its drinking culture, but have been reported in towns and city centres in other European states, Australia and the USA (Hadfield, 2009).

19Nevertheless, the arguments for expanding activities in high streets outside of retailing hours were cogently put by Jane Jacobs (1961) in her classic text on urban planning, where she argued for a ‘ballet’ of street life, with enterprises opening and closing at different hours and attracting different customers, to ensure vitality and safety. This would suggest a detailed attention to the choreography of the street and the interaction of time and space. While the concept and practice of time planning has received much attention in Italy and Germany, it has been little discussed in the Anglophone literature (Bianchini & Greed 1999). More information has become available recently and the aims, tools and purposes of time planning in selected case study cities exposed (Henckel et al 2013). Van Schaik (2011) comments that although this approach to planning is capable of further development, most attention has been paid to medium sized cities and to larger enterprises. It seems that the detailed convergence of spatial planning policies and time plans has not been achieved at the local scale under discussion here.

20Measures to enhance the management of the ENTE have been in place in the UK for over a decade and are in a continuing state of development (Davies & Mummery 2006). The value of partnership between the owners and managers of licensed premises, local authorities, the police, health authorities and other stakeholders is being promoted by central government and supported by the drinks industry through an array of schemes and initiatives. Of these, the Purple Flag scheme is the most comprehensive. This is directed by a not-for -profit organisation, the Association of Town and City Management (ATCM) and provides a benchmarking scheme for well-run evening and night-time economies. Individual local authorities apply for recognition and have to provide evidence of partnership working with local stakeholders, together with a considerable amount of detailed information that demonstrating achievements within a set of indicators (ATCM no date). Over fifty locations in the UK and the Republic of Ireland have achieved Purple Flag status.

21Local authorities can also draw on national legislation and local solutions. In the UK, the permissive aspects of national licensing legislation have been gradually reduced, such that the latest statutory guidance to local authorities allows greater powers over the times at which drinks may be served in specific micro-districts of an area (Home Office 2014). Individual local authorities can also shape their planning policies to exclude certain types of premises. Westminster City Council, for example, does not allow applications for new nightclubs of over 500 m2, to avoid disturbance to residential areas (Westminster City Council 2013). This type of neighbourhood specific regulation is important in the UK, where land-use planning has lacked the detailed powers to promote mixed-use development that is more common in northern Europe.

22An increase in regulatory powers on the part of the local authority goes some way to overcoming objections to drawing on evening and night-time economy activities as a means to revitalise local high streets. Concerns about health remain, (Ronksley et al 2012, Room 2004, HM Government 2012) and are based on clinical evidence. However, much alcohol is drunk in the home in the UK (Holloway, Jayne, Valentine 2008) and there is an argument to suggest that drinking in a ‘third place’ outside the home might foster a greater sense of social solidarity (Roberts & Townshend 2013). Ideally, a vibrant evening and night-time economy would not be alcohol led, but would be based on a wide range of activities. The Purple Flag accreditation scheme has diversity of offer as one of its criteria for recognition as a well-run night-time centre. Here ‘diversity’ does not simply mean a combination of corporate branded premises and independents, but a mixture of different types of land-uses that are active at night.

23While local high streets do not provide certainty for investors, their very fragility offers the opportunity for experimentation. ‘Pop up’ or temporary uses have become a popular device for keeping failing high streets active, often with the support of the local authority (Bishop & Williams 2012). Some of the more unfashionable neighbourhoods in London have benefited from this phenomenon. Pop-up restaurants have appeared as a kind of intermediate stage between a market stall and a permanent venue. There has been some experimentation with cinema, too, such as the summertime film shows on the roof of a disused warehouse in the Bussey Building in Rye Lane Peckham, south-east London, a neighbourhood in south-east London which scores highly on indices of deprivation. Another example from Peckham is Frank’s Bar, which is only open in summer, because it is located on the top of a largely disused multi-storey car park. The popularity of the bar and the presence of large unused spaces has encouraged local artists to experiment with installations and shows that can be visited on the journey up and down to the bar. A major orchestra now too holds performances in the car park.

24More experimental alcohol focused venues offer a different experience of ‘going out’. There is evidence that there is a demand for a variety of experiences (Roberts 2015), a chance to visit different ‘clusters’ of leisure and entertainment that might offer a more relaxed night out than the intensity offered by the city centre. At the time of writing, the UK government’s Home Office is working with Purple Flag in 20 locations to encourage local businesses to move away from alcohol led projects towards a more diversified evening and night-time economy. This support is directed only at the locations where there is evidence that the population is suffering from alcohol related health problems and is not concerned with more general issues of economic development.

25Outside of London there are local traditions to draw on. The microbrewery ‘movement’ has 75 ‘micropubs’ listed in an online directory. Micropubs are small alehouses, dedicated to conversation, with no electronic devices allowed, and that ‘real’ cask ales. In effect they are a reinvention of a traditional ‘alehouse’ of the pre-industrial era. These businesses are located in recently vacated premises, such as a travel agent, a butcher’s shop, a disused paper mill and a former dry cleaner’s (Micropub Association 2014). The drawback to this emerging movement is that it is targeted at a specialist clientele. Nevertheless, the popularity of the micropub demonstrates a public willingness to support alternatives to the major corporate chains.

26It is possible to imagine that a similar trend could become established with coffee bars. In the period around the millennium the number of coffee shops in the UK grew by 55% between 1997 and 2000 with an annual year on year growth of 22% thereafter until 2002 (Scott 2006: 63). As with other business ventures, their ownership and franchise arrangements has been dominated by large chains, such as Costa, Café Nero and Starbucks. In contrast to mainland Europe their opening hours do not extend beyond retailing hours, which in Britain typically end at 17.30. In a research project carried out by the author in 2005 and 2006 a senior representative of one of these major corporates was interviewed and asked why they did not open later into the evening. The answer was that there was not the demand as the footfall past the shops did not justify longer opening hours. This attitude has been challenged by the appearance of many independently run cafes and cyber cafes in Brighton, although it should be acknowledged that this is a major town centre.

27The discussion above demonstrates the importance of the ‘multiplier’ effect, that is the way in which businesses need to cluster and as Alexander (1966) pointed out, different types of activities overlap and support each other. So for example, a late night convenience store could be ‘clustered’ with a bar that has music, a coffee shop, a micropub and a bookshop that occasionally opens late for events such as a live reading. In a local high street, this needs to be orchestrated, which poses difficulties because there is little public sector funding to support, say a local regeneration officer or economic development officer by the local authority who might encourage and facilitate different enterprises to co-locate.

28The notion of a local champion of night-time activities has been pioneered in other European cities. Amsterdam created the first mayor for the night in 2003. This office, run from a not-for-profit continues and the mayor sees it as his duty to diffuse the concept more widely amongst capital cities across the world (Night Mayor Amsterdam no date). Three French cities have mayors for the night, Paris, Toulouse and Nantes. These are each publicly recognised officials. Their responsibilities include acting as a ‘bridge’ between residents and night time businesses, reducing conflict and enhancing experience. Such leadership will require public support and local co-operation if it is to be more widely adopted.

Concluding Comments

29Local British high streets are at a critical stage in their evolution. Nineteenth century industrial expansion fostered their development as centres for retail and commerce. As retailing has developed with the advent of chain stores, large footprint outlets and out of town shopping, the role of the high street retailer has declined. The growth of smaller independent shops and local outlets for the major supermarkets has provided a counterpoint to this trend, but not overturned it. Further challenges arise from the growth of internet shopping. These trends and further issues associated with car dominance, the physical limitations and fragmented ownership of traditional high streets have led to a convergence of academic and policy views that the role of local high streets needs to accommodate a wider variety of activities than retailing.

30The evening and night time economies offer one avenue of expansion. Although this might seem to be a risky suggestion, because expenditure on eating, drinking and other activities outside the home are dependent on a certain level of disposable income, the experience of the recent recession in the UK suggests that following a dip; this sector of the economy is still buoyant. There are other difficulties, however, associated with crime and disorder, the promotion of healthy lifestyles and the tendency of major businesses to be risk averse. This appears to be leading to a consolidation of night time activities in major city centres.

31This article has suggested that the emergence of new trends, in particular for ‘pop-up’ enterprises and the imaginative re-use of old structures and disused properties can help to ‘save’ the high street. There is evidence of public taste extending beyond the mainstream, as with the growth in the number of micropubs, selling locally made ‘craft’ beers and for later opening coffee shops. The regulations covering nighttime activities have become more fine grained and sophisticated and it is possible to protect residential neighbourhoods from excessive noise through more sophisticated planning and management. Nevertheless, there are considerable challenges to overcome, to establish sufficient business confidence in order to create localised ‘clusters’ of evening and night-time activities. It would seem that some public support is needed, to orchestrate and manage diverse stakeholders. In the current climate of severe restrictions on public expenditure, this too is difficult. Without it though, many locations in the UK could suffer and face a future where their choices are restricted to distant out of town leisure parks and major town and city centres during the hours of darkness.

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1 The author would like to thank the University of Southampton who commissioned the research on which this article is based.

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Electronic reference

Marion Roberts, The Crisis in the UK’s High Streets: can the Evening and Nighttime Economy Help?Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 11 | 2015, Online since 17 November 2016, connection on 20 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Marion Roberts

Marion Roberts is Professor of Urban Design in the Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS. Her most recent funded research project is a study of aspects of London’s night-time economy. She is currently further developing her research interests in the night-time economy and linking these with her long standing research interests in gender. Marion is co-leading the working group on Urban Europe for the European Commission supported COST network TN1021 genderSTE. Email :

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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