Resilience, fragility, and adaptation: new evidence on the performance of UK high streets during global economic crisis and its policy implications
At a time of increasing government concern with the economic health of UK town centres and high streets, and with an independent inquiry (led by Mary Portas) on Revitalising the High Street to report by the end of 2011, this paper seeks to make four contributions. First, to inject into an available evidence base, currently notable for its sparseness, new descriptive evidence on the differential performance of a sample of over 250 town centres/high streets in four regions of the UK as those centres adjusted to the shock wave of global economic crisis. Second, to address the task of theorising the nature of the complex adjustments underway by positioning the policy-significant findings provided in the paper within conceptualisations of ‘resilience’ in economic systems—particularly those which stress the anticipatory or reactive capacity of systems to minimise the impacts of a destabilising shock and which focus on resilience as a dynamic and evolutionary process. Third, to offer findings from theory-driven statistical modelling of the determinants of the differential resilience or fragility exhibited by that sample of centres. Fourth, to assess what the implications of those findings and a focus on ‘adaptive resilience’ might mean for the design of policy proposals and instruments aimed at revitalising UK town centres and high streets. Although some of the paper’s empirical findings parallel those suggested by specialist commercial research companies which have emerged to fill the need to chart the posteconomic crisis malaise of UK retail centres, they also significantly extend available knowledge. In particular, they offer novel insight into the impact of two factors—‘diversity’ of a centre’s preexisting retail structure and ‘town-centres-first’ policy-compliant ‘in-centre’ or ‘edge-of-centre’ corporate-foodstore entry. Although conventionally portrayed as polar opposites within popular debate in terms of attempts to protect and/or enhance the vitality and viability of town centres and high streets, our analysis suggests that this may not be the case. Indeed, the retail centres in our sample which proved most resilient to the shock wave of global economic crisis were characterised by both diversity and corporate-food-store entry.
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