Covid-19 has had an impact on our town centres over the last 18 months, resulting in an increase in vacancies and a change in the way we shop. As we begin to get back to a sense of normality, following ‘Freedom Day’ earlier this week, we look at the impacts Covid-19 has had on our high streets and the future implications the pandemic will have.

Town centre policy

Town centre planning policies have traditionally sought to restrict the change of use of town centre units. Recently, however, there has been a drive towards greater diversification along high streets away from retail as the core land use, recognising the benefits that a diverse high street and town centre can bring. Although this diversification is being accelerated by the pandemic, the change and acknowledgement of its importance to the health of our town centres, was starting to take place beforehand.

Alongside the recent extension of permitted development rights, this motivated the introduction of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, effective since 1 September 2020. The changes to the Use Class Order have drastically changed them, and now provide for three new use classes focussing on commercial, business and service; learning and non-residential institutions; and local community uses. This is opposed to emphasis on retail only in the 1987 order, giving greater planning freedom to buildings and land to support the economic recovery.

Clearly, consideration will need to be given to the physical location of certain uses on our high streets. In particular the location of housing units in the context of the wider offer of the town centre. For example, new residential opportunities will be less desirable if sandwiched between a takeaway and a bar. There does, however need to be a recognition that there are real benefits through the introduction and increase in residential properties in town centres. Not only do they pose an opportunity to reuse otherwise redundant town centre stock, but they also provide the opportunity to increase footfall and expenditure within centres. Resulting in improving both the daytime and the evening economies.

It goes without saying that retail, leisure and services will continue to pay a key role in supporting centres and meeting resident’s day-to-day needs. This has been proven throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have seen a real desire from local communities to help support their high streets.


Covid-19 hasn’t entirely diluted the human instinct to mix with others. Instead it has temporarily reduced the desire or ability to travel to shop, eat and socialise, therefore almost forcing on us to meet our needs in our local centres, typically focussing more on those smaller centres.

In assessing the impact of the pandemic, as many local authorities and private landlords are doing, it will be important to consider the niche role of particular centres. Be it some are more resilient, thanks to the uniqueness of their offer, or the adaptable approach adopted by key stakeholders, for example town councils, businesses, civic societies and so on.

In any event, when considering the impacts on our high street from the commercial market, both before and after Covid-19, we see that diversity and flexibility will be key factors in the future. Successful high streets will continue to be able to embrace these new dynamics and the flexible approach promoted by the government.

In this regard, whilst major shopping destinations within city centres and sub-regional out-of-centre locations will continue to pay a key role in the future, the rise of the ethical shopper will likely see more motivated shopping habits on local high streets. Key examples including ‘zero waste’ retailers in some smaller town and district centres. The key to the future success of the centres is to capitalise on and reflect local demographics.

COVID-19 and the High Street

The pandemic has given time to take stock and reflect on how to reboot our town centres in light of a change in shopping and leisure habits and in an online world. Many commentators foresee that our high streets and town centres will in years to come have fewer but more vibrant and varied shops, specialising in niche or local goods, which the pandemic has shown are prized by the people who live there.

For every sad story of a national multiple closing during the past year, there have been tales of smaller, independent commercial enterprises thriving, such as local delicatessens, greengrocers, bakeries, coffee houses and craft ale breweries.

Crucially, any boom in independent enterprise must be supported by increasing footfall on those high streets. We need to encourage more living in our town centres. The increasing desire for people to shop, work and spend leisure time within a 15-minute radius of their front door has come to the fore, thanks to a huge increase in home working, which is set to continue to some extent.

In any event, it is clear that the future high street’s purpose will be so much more than just shopping, visiting a bank and using the Post Office. With clear stakeholder communication, new attractive spaces will be designed for communities to meet the demand for safe and social experiences.