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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Injecting life back into the high street

Research by Southampton Geography and Environment academics is helping inject life back into the UK’s high streets by having a major impact on the UK and global retail sector and government retail policy.

Research challenge

The UK’s town centres and high streets have been in decline for many years. Online shopping, the growth of out of town retail outlets, and the global economic crisis have all had a detrimental effect on our city and town centres.

Southampton Geography and Environment researchers, led by Professor Neil Wrigley, were challenged to explore ways in which town centres can adapt to economic change and show resilience in order to survive.

They have been investigating the social, economic and environmental impact of alternative visions of the high street over the past 25 years.

The team has also looked at the provision of food retail in disadvantaged communities.


The retail industry is hugely significant to the local and national economy, with one in nine people employed in retail, and sales of £303b in 2011. It also plays a part in wider public policy, particularly regeneration and health.

But town centres and high streets have been feeling the impact of the global economic crisis. This, together with a progressive rise in online shopping, the rise of convenience culture and the effects of out-of-town retail centres, had created an uncertain future for Britain’s high streets.

Our solution

Southampton’s research is helping to put life back into the UK’s town centres by evaluating alternative visions for the high street.

Professor Wrigley's team have been consulting expert panels of opinion leaders from retail and property industries, local and national government, academia, and key stakeholders. They have also been exploring case studies of specific high streets and examining successful small and medium-sized business to see how they can act as “local heroes” in their towns.

Their research also assessed people’s responses to new in-centre corporate convenience stores and included long-overdue evidence on the impact of the ‘town centre first’ policy – looking at before and after studies of market towns and district centres.

In a previous research project the team studied the impact of limited food access on deprived communities. In collaboration with public health and urban planning researchers, they provided the first evidence on the impact of a large-scale natural experiment of the dietary consequences of people having poor access to healthy food.

What was the impact?

Research from the Southampton team is having a major impact on the future of the UK’s town centres and their findings are helping these centres adapt to and survive current economic change. Their research has contributed to evidence-based policy debate for more than a decade and has been quoted in planning forums and parliament. It has become part of the Portas Review that is helping shape the future of town centres.

Research leader Professor Neil Wrigley has presented their research findings to an All Party Parliamentary Group on Town Centres, at the House of Commons, and to the British Retail Consortium. He has also presented a speech at the Politeia - forum for social and economic thinking – at a round table on ‘saving the town centre’.

He has also been asked to be the only academic representative on the government’s High Street Taskforce that brings together leaders across retail, property and business to better understand the competition town centres face and to drive forward new ideas and policies.

The research into the impact of poor access to quality food on deprived urban communities was picked up by the US Department of Agriculture as part of their response to the economic cost of ill health. Neil was one of only two international experts invited to contribute to the US National Academies on the subject.

In the UK this research led to the development of almost 50 urban regeneration partnership stores in some of our most deprived urban communities.

An abandoned shop
Adapting to economic change
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