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Fewer shoppers, more empty shops: is it the end of the road for Britain's high streets?

The number of people visiting Britain’s high streets has fallen by 20% in the last decade, research for ITV’s Tonight has found.

The significant fall in passing trade – known as footfall - is a clear sign of the struggle high streets across the country are facing as more of us shop online and visit retail parks. The figures were compiled by retail analysts Springboard.

While shoppers have fallen, empty shops have gone up. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of vacant stores rose by 2,000 to more than 26,000 – accounting for 12.1% of all shops in Britain, according to the Local Data Company, based on a sample of the top 650 town centres in the country.

‘Sometimes I can be here all day and just the odd person comes in and looks around’

Dalton Road in Barrow-in-Furness is typical of so many of Britain’s high streets. Credit: ITV Tonight

On this week’s edition of Tonight, the programme spent time in Dalton Road in Barrow-in-Furness through the crucial Christmas period to get a sense of what is happening beyond the statistics.

Dalton Road is typical of so many of Britain’s high streets. There are classic chains, independent shops and problems: premises lying empty and businesses on the brink, on a road which was once a thriving marketplace.

Bustling Dalton Road in 1961 Credit: North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University

One shopkeeper on Dalton Road is Phil Heath. His toy shop was opened by his dad in the 1960s and was the go-to place for boys and girls in the town. But it’s a very different picture now. With shopping habits changing and online sales doubling in the last ten years, Phil has had to diversify to keep his business going. He now sells office equipment alongside toys.

Phil Heath's toy shop has been open for more than 50 years. Credit: ITV Tonight

We used to make more profit 20 years ago. It’s tough.

If I was a hard-nosed businessman I would maybe think, ‘Hmm. Should I ditch the high street? [Or] should I concentrate on my office supplies?’

But...I believe in town centre shopping and I believe in Barrow and the people of Barrow. And I'm passionate about it.

– Phil Heath

Other businesses on Dalton Road are also finding ways to fight the tide of falling sales. Butcher Neil Charnley has created new products and uses Facebook to promote his business and special offers.

Sandra Collins runs a haberdashery and offers something the internet can’t – sewing classes. She runs four classes a week at her shop, with customers paying from £7 for her expert tuition.

Sewing classes at this haberdashery are proving a service the internet can't offer Credit: ITV Tonight

We bought the shop about 33 years ago.

We bought a very run-down shop and we got it going, and it was really very lucrative.

And then it just, it started going downhill.

[We] definitely had to do something else or else we wouldn’t be here now.

– Sandra Collins

One of those taking part in the sewing class said: “It needs things like this, the high street’s not brilliant. I don’t really come into town an awful lot."

Another said: "I used to walk up Dalton Road and you'd see loads of people and you'd say 'Hiya!' Everybody would talk to everybody. It was really good.”

But for some on Dalton Road, the changing shopping habits are just too great to keep going. Donna Jefferson is calling it a day after 16 years selling hairpieces and fancy dress.

Donna Jefferson is closing her shop after 16 years. Credit: ITV Tonight

Sometimes I can be here all day and just the odd person will come in and look around or just the odd person come in and buy something...and I think 'God, what am I doing? Why am I here? Why am I wasting all my day, you know, for nothing?'

I know nothing lasts forever I know that for sure but didn't think no I didn't think it was gonna get as dismal as this.

– Donna Jefferson

Southport in Merseyside has found itself caught up in the downward trend, its once prosperous shopping centre is dotted with empty shops.

What can be done to reverse the decline?

2019 was the worst year on record for retail. The future for high street shopkeepers in this new decade is uncertain to say the least.

We asked High Streets Minister Jake Berry about one of the biggest complaints among business owners - the unfairness of business rates. Business rates are based on the value of the property, and not the profitability of the business inside. Mr Berry said the government is doubling small business rate relief, “a huge reduction next year in people's business rates”.

Local high streets are still 'vibrant', says High Streets Minister Jake Berry. Credit: ITV Tonight

High streets are dynamic spaces. They've always been subject to change and the taxation system needs to move as quickly to reflect that, as retailers and entrepreneurs do on our high streets up and down the country.

– Jake Berry MP, High Streets Minister

Asked whether the high streets are dying, Mr Berry said “I don't like this talk of the death of the high street. I think it's far too pessimistic. Go to your local high street. I think you will be very surprised. Your viewers will be very surprised about how vibrant it still is, but we have to acknowledge that the way people are shopping is changing”.

The government is offering some help, through the Future High Streets Fund. It contains a billion pounds of public money and Barrow is one of a hundred towns on a shortlist to receive some of it.

But is money enough to fix the problem?

Vidhya Alakeson thinks not. She’s the chief executive of Power to Change, an organisation which helps communities regenerate.

The cash is relatively small given the scale of the challenge.

I think, alongside that, to really change things you need money to support people to do new things, to start new businesses, and that money isn't really there. So, it's better than nothing, but I think it's limited in what it can really achieve.

Fundamentally, whatever we do to fix business rates, won't change the fact that retail-dominated high streets - that model is broken.

We need a much more diversified offer on the high street. So the high street needs to involve retail, but also public services, so we need to bring libraries and health centres, and those sorts of things back to the high street. They give people a huge reason to come to the high street.

– Vidhya Alakeson, chief executive of Power to Change
Donna Jefferson has opened up a new shop on Dalton Road. Credit: ITV Tonight

Back on Dalton Road, and after the heartbreak of being forced to close her shop, Donna Jefferson’s pouring all her efforts into a new venture – The Coffee Bean café.

“I needed to do something that you know you couldn't get from the internet”, Donna said.

But why stay on Dalton Road?

“It’s where I've worked, it's where I've been, it's what I'm used to. I like it here - it's home”, she said.

“I think towns will be very, very different in a few years' time - unless the computers all crash.”

ITV News will be reporting on the health of the UK's high streets on Thursday 16 January

What's the state of the high street where you live?

  • High Streets: End of the Road? – Tonight will be broadcast on Thursday January 16 at 7.30pm on ITV. ITV News will be reporting on the state of Britain's high streets in our programmes at 1.30pm and 6.30pm on Thursday - and your regional news programme at 6pm will be taking a closer look at what is happening where you live.