It isn’t only 400 miles that separate Cambridge from Kilmarnock. So what can these two towns tell us about the fate of the high street?

There is a flipchart that sits in Gwen Barker’s East Ayrshire Council office. Scrawled across its pages are ideas on how to inject more life into Kilmarnock high street, a town that sits on the west coast of Scotland and which, as of two months ago, Barker has been given the job of regenerating. Some of the ideas, both hers and from people across the community, are a “little crazy,” admits the policy, planning and performance manager.

One suggestion is to erect a zip wire between an arts and culture hub that sits atop a small hill all the way down to the town centre. “I did ask, how do you get back up?” she chuckles. Another is to follow the example of Brighton and Bristol in dedicating an entire street to the work of graffiti artists. Barker has even been reading about the transformation of Brazilian city Curitiba. “We’re looking right across the world,” she says.

Thinking big is a reflection of the huge desire to rejuvenate the town centre, she says. “We’ve got a really strong, passionate community and if you can harness that then you can turn anything around.”

But according to a 2018 report into UK high streets, it will take some serious work. The study, by commercial real estate agents Cushman & Wakefield, analysed performance across 22 variables, from rental yields to retailer demand, affluence and wage growth, to assemble a ranking of 250 towns and cities. At the top sit Cambridge, Guildford, Bath and Chichester. At the bottom, Newport, Greenock, Ramsgate and – you guessed it – Kilmarnock.

The list might not hold many surprises, admits Cushman’s head of EMEA retail research and the report’s author, Darren Yates. In fact, “you could almost the write the top and bottom 10 from the beginning,” he says. But what you wouldn’t find a few years ago is such a gap between these top and bottom performers. “The problem is that a lot of the towns toward the bottom of the ranking have lost their raison d’être. Why are people going there?”

The short answer for somewhere like Kilmarnock is: they aren’t. At least not in the volumes they once did. As we all know, consumers have less money to spend and far more choice where to spend it, notably online. As a result, this Christmas saw the worst footfall decline for physical retail since 2008, down 3.8% on high streets, according to the BRC.

Compounding that are the rising costs of bricks-and-mortar retail, whether from extortionate rents, business rates or the national living wage. All of which leave margins tight and struggling branches expendable. M&S, Jamie’s Italian and Poundworld have all announced closures in the past 12 months. PwC estimates 14 shops close every day on UK high streets.

And crucially, the impact isn’t evenly distributed. It is in smaller town centres that multiples are closing most branches. Only in October, Topshop announced it was pulling out of Kilmarnock.

“Large regional centres which have appeal for national retail chains are holding up relatively well,” says Andrew McVicker, sales director at Pragma. “It’s the middle ground where there isn’t the demand from occupiers. Those places are suffering in terms of retaining existing occupiers and attracting new ones.”

“A lot of these smaller places simply don’t have the critical mass,” adds Yates. “We’re moving into a realm whereby it’s either places you want to go or have to go. So if you don’t have to go to central Kilmarnock, you won’t.”

“If you don’t have to go to central Kilmarnock, you won’t.”

It’s a vicious cycle Kilmarnock has faced – and overcome – before, albeit for different reasons. Historically the town had strong manufacturing ties, the area dotted with factories belonging to Massey Ferguson tractors, BMK carpets and Diageo. But 20 or so years ago those big names began shutting up shop, the final nail in the coffin coming in 2012 with the closure of the famous Johnnie Walker bottling plant smack bang in the town’s centre.

Properties sat vacant, some for decades, and it wasn’t until a push to repurpose these huge derelict buildings, many as office space, that some semblance of atmosphere returned to the town centre. So successful were efforts to repurpose empty spaces it even picked up the gong for most improved Scottish town in 2015.

Since then though, as the shift to online has accelerated, activity has slowed, admits Barker. “There’s been a dip in that strategic thinking.” From 2pm onwards retailers tell her they may as well shut up shop, so deathly quiet is the largely pedestrianised high street, while there isn’t demand from major retailers to fill vacant properties that remain. The former BHS site sits empty opposite the town’s only shopping mall – three years after the business went into administration.


Four hundred miles away in Cambridge it’s a different story. It took less than a year for tenants to occupy the empty BHS unit in the centre’s Grafton shopping centre, welcoming both H&M and PureGym in 2017. In the past year they’ve been joined by a flagship 9,000 sq ft River Island and sports brand Decathlon. The contrast illustrates how, against a challenging commercial backdrop, retailers – and consumers – are gravitating towards these larger regional centres.

“The city’s retail sector has continued to trade well on the back of a relatively affluent catchment and strong tourist sector, and the city is top in the UK league for the smallest number of empty retail units at 8%,” says Russell Smith, retail and leisure partner at property and planning consultancy Rapleys.

“Cambridge is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the UK – it’s a destination in itself,” adds Catherine Shutterworth, CEO of Savvy Marketing. In contrast, “the more relaxed approach to Scottish planning in out-of-town retail parks, in addition to online shopping, has allowed the centre of Kilmarnock to fall away. The population of Kilmarnock is just 43,000 and it’s only a journey of 22 miles to Glasgow, or 40 minutes by train.”

Adam Walford, partner and head of retail & leisure at law firm Howard Kennedy, believes “the success of the high street is inextricably linked to the community and environment around it. There has to be a reason for people wanting to live, work and visit a town.”

So, what might Kilmarnock glean from leafy Cambridge as it looks to attract people back to its town centre? One avenue is to create an appeal that goes beyond retail. Famous for its world-class university and sleepy waterways, visitors flock to Cambridge for a day trip as much as a shopping trip, a fact supported by its hundreds of bars, restaurants and cafés.

“High streets that are thriving are really building a sense of community,” says Visa’s head of merchant services (and Great British High street judge) Sundeep Kaur. “It’s more than just commerce, it’s a sense of community and providing an experience for visitors, whether from local communities or further away.”

“High streets that are thriving are really building a sense of community”

Work has already begun to emulate that in Kilmarnock. Promotions of its “fantastic” arts gallery and museum, and a newly packaged “cultural quarter” housing music events and theatre will be advertised soon, says Barker. Plans are underway too to create a cycle route through its “beautiful parks”, as well as discussions about how to tempt the restaurants that line its outskirts further into the centre.

Championing independent retail is crucial too, to mitigate the unpredictability of the multiples. In Cambridge, “anyone looking for encouraging signs of retail resilience should head to Mill Road, a mile-long stretch of independent cafés, quirky shops and international restaurants – one of Cambridge’s most vibrant destinations,” says Smith. “It really showcases the strength of quality independent operators delivering a cosmopolitan, upbeat environment and an exciting alternative side of the city.”

In Kilmarnock, other than the tiny Bank Street there are few independents, admits Barker. “Our concern is if the likes of M&S and Boots decide to go, which they could do, we’re really going to have a problem. Someone will make a decision at board level and that will be that.”

“National chains are over-exposed in many places,” agrees retail expert Martin Newman. “Short-term leases, pop-ups and leasing to smaller independent retailers is the way to go. If the nationals have too many stores then landlords must recognise they need to find smaller brands to fill them.”

Universal issues

Yates agrees struggling towns like Kilmarnock can learn lessons from success stories in this way. But there’s a limit to the comparison. “In part it’s a quirk of history, and luck,” he says. With its educational, architectural and cultural heritage, “Cambridge is one of the most sought-after cities on the planet.”

True. And despite being one of the most sought-after cities on the planet, Cambridge still faces huge challenges, albeit to a lesser extent than Kilmarnock.

As Ian Sandison, CEO of Cambridge Business Improvement District, points out, even Cambridge has experienced a drop in footfall (about 5% in the past year) as well as lower occupancy rates and a softening in demand from businesses wanting to set up shop in its town centre. “Consumer confidence has been low as people have less disposable income. Therefore fashion, or coffee and cake, has been seen as a luxury which they’re cutting back on.”

Even the throngs of tourists in double-decker buses aren’t always good for business. Though visitor numbers went up last year, footfall was down, says Sandison. That’s because “people that visit only come for a short period of time: for a day trip or a few hours before going on somewhere else. As a result they don’t navigate the city as much as we’d like them to.

“You would see coffee shops and bars and restaurants benefiting hugely from these day-trippers but what you might call traditional retailers would benefit less, and it’s that traditional product retail that is also more susceptible to online.”

Katie Benson, owner of The Cambridge Fabric Company, agrees. “The challenge is getting the balance in Cambridge between it being a tourist town and not turning it into a tourist spectacle. In the summer months we lose our locals.”

Rent reviews

Then there are the high rental values in central Cambridge, which can push out the very independent traders experts insist all town centres must nurture. 
“I dread the rent being reviewed in another year’s time,” says Benson. “It’s crippling to small businesses.” On business rates too, the extension of government relief for some properties in Scotland also leaves Kilmarnock arguably better off than Cambridge.

“I dread the rent being reviewed in another year’s time, It’s crippling to small businesses.”

So it would be remiss to assume that sitting top of the leaderboard leaves Cambridge without a care in the world. Luckily Sandison has ambitious ideas, such as a city gift card that can only be used in the Cambridge postcode, and a free shopping map of all the city’s 250-plus independent stores.

It’s the same in Kilmarnock: there is always hope because of passionate individuals, insists David Buckingham, CEO of Ecrebo. “Despite the ongoing struggles within the retail sector, the high street is far from dead. Individual stores are working on innovative ways to stay relevant and competitive, while town councils and business groups are making high streets more attractive and engaging places to visit.”

It does raise a question though, says Pragma’s McVicker: If consumers are gravitating to online, exactly “whose concept of the high street are we looking to save? While people talk about it with fondness they’re not following through so I think it’s a real challenge to understand what we’re trying to achieve, and therefore how it can be saved.” A question as pertinent whether you’re in Cambridge’s cobbled streets, or planning a zip wire into Kilmarnock town centre.


The two town centres, at a glance


Source: Alamy


Where: The only major city in Cambridgeshire, in the east of England

Population: 129,000

Best known for: Being home to the prestigious University of Cambridge, which was founded in 1209 and remains one of the best universities in the world. Its 31 historic colleges are spread out across the city centre, as well as bordering the river Cam, and its students swell the city’s population by around 25,000 for 24 weeks of the year. And that isn’t counting the thousands of bikes they bring with them.

Retail mix: Back in 2010, Cambridge earned as a reputation as the worst ‘clone town’ in the UK as a result of its high density of multiples. Of the 57 shops running along Petty Cury, one of its main shopping streets, only one was independent. That’s something it has worked on since though, with about 250 independents now operating in the town centre, most famously along Mill Road.

Eating out: There are hundreds of options among its food and drink outlets, from cafés to casual dining and high-end fine dining.

Attractions: More than 100,000 tourists visit Cambridge each year, to stroll through the colleges (many of which are open to the public) or hire a punt on the Cam.


Source: Getty


Where is it? On the west coast of Scotland, about 22 miles from Scotland’s second-largest city, Glasgow

Population: 45,000

Best known for: Some famous former residents have put Kilmarnock on the map. It’s thought William Wallace was born in its small suburb of Riccarton, while Robert Burns also published his first edition of poems in the town. It’s also known for its strong manufacturing ties, including being home until recently to Johnnie Walker whisky, its bottling plant located in the town centre until 2012.

Retail mix: Burns Mall is the one and only shopping centre in the town and is packed predominantly with chains such as Argos, Greggs, Farmfoods and Holland & Barrett. There are independents elsewhere though, including family-run butchers, bakers and delicatessens.

Eating out: Some restaurants sit on the outskirts of the town and a few more are dotted along central King Street.

Attractions: Kilmarnock isn’t a big hitter with tourists but does have a decent-sized museum and art gallery, as well as a statue of Johnnie Walker.