Can OS map Britain’s high streets?

By Iain Goodwin and Kat Harrington

During the last year, OS has been working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to improve our joint understanding of high streets. Since the Government’s £675 million Future High Streets Fund budget announcement, our collaborative government project has become increasingly more significant.

The importance of high streets has also been acknowledged by Public Health England through their Healthy High Streets research, published at the beginning of 2018, highlights how a healthy high street provides “Accessible, safe, communal spaces foster social interaction and strong local economies and can be used to create healthier, safer and more cohesive local communities”. It also drew the conclusion that the “unequal distribution of healthy and unhealthy high streets is likely to contribute to health inequalities”.

This is a view echoed by retailer, Sir John Timpson, who speaking last December to the BBC about high streets said: “It’s not just about shopping. It’s about communities and creating a hub for entertainment, medical facilities, housing.”

So how can OS help?

We asked ourselves some questions. Where does a high street start and end? What is their geography, and how do they compare? High streets up and down the country have no obvious physical boundaries, and not knowing the exact geography of our high streets makes it difficult to identify and analyse them.

Given the level of interest in the high street, we decided, as a starting point, to see if we could work out the extents of high streets in Britain. What we created is an experimental dataset, using an automated methodology depicting the extent of Britain’s high streets and their land use. ONS and MHCLG have provided feedback and as a result we have made tweaks to the methodology, so we ensure we don’t exclude high streets for example with large building footprints.

Our starting point for defining a high street was to think of a high street as a location people visit to shop, eat and drink, which we classify as ‘retail’. We looked for all addresses classified under retail within our AddressBase dataset. From here, we wanted to understand streets with clusters of retail addresses.

Our Data Office created algorithms to make a decision on what a cluster is. To avoid naming small rows of shops as ‘high streets’, and to keep the data clean, we decided that a minimum of 15 retail addresses would be required to create a high street, provided they are within 150 metres of each other.

By using this spatial cluster analysis – in conjunction with street names – we’ve been able to create linear (straight line) clusters along a high street rather than sprawling clusters.

The extent of a high street can be depicted in several ways. They can be shown as address points, as building outlines, or as a bounding box around all the addresses. Each way of visualising the extent of a high street will have different analytical advantages.

Users will be able to link and overlay their own location and statistical data to these extents.

Of course, high streets don’t just contain retail addresses. Research has shown that well designed high streets with a variety of offices and homes are more robust and thrive compared to those consisting of retail alone. Therefore, we can also show the profile of a high street by using other address classifications from AddressBase, which provide a ration of retail, office space and residential homes.

High street facts

In time we believe the high street data and subsequent retail geography data, linked to other datasets such as footfall and empty shops will help government answer important questions. However, the high street data itself can provide facts, such as:

The longest high street in Great Britain, calculated using our methodology, is London Road in Southend-on-Sea (the town is also home to the longest pier in the world by the way) at 2983m. The longest high street in Scotland is Dumbarton Road in Glasgow at 1706m and in Wales it is High Street in Bangor at 1265m.

What’s next for our high streets project?

This collaborative project is on-going as there is more we want to achieve including depicting retail clusters at different densities, identifying out of town shopping centres, business parks, industrial parks and look at change over time. Currently the data is only available to the core user group, however we hope to open this data out to more users over time.

If you have an interest in high street extents, and want to know more, then please contact Katerina.Harrington@os.uk

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1 Response

  1. I’m happy to be involved helping you guys test this if you wish. I’m Principal Health Analyst for Gloucestershire and regularly work with geographic data (often in QGIS)

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