Statistics for Town Centres

The need for town centre statistics There are many organisations interested in information on turnover, employment and floorspace within town centres. Central government require it for assessing policies 
on planning, urban renewal and neighbourhood renewal, local planners to help them in retail planning decisions, town centre managers to see how their town centres are performing compared to other town centres across the country and retailers to inform their decisions. 

Until recently there has been a void of upto- date information. Several problems have prevented this from being readily available, The index of town centre activity mapped across looking towards Central London. one of which was the lack of small area information for the town centres, another being a lack of consistent boundaries from which to compile statistics that could be compared from area to area.

This is in the process of changing, due to innovative work commissioned from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). This has so far resulted in a set of provisional town centre boundaries and statistics being published for London, with plans for the work to be extended across England and Wales and published during 2003.

In order to get an accurate picture of the extent of town centres, both for the purpose of producing boundaries and for compiling statistics, it was essential to have data sets of a sufficient quality down to unit postcode level (the most detailed postcode level). ONS already collect detailed information on employment and turnover in the Annual Business Inquiry (ABI) and they with ODPM are developing a methodology for extending these down to the level required for the town centre project. The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) also collects extensive information on floorspace, as part of the ratings process, and ODPM commissioned work from the Bartlett School at University College London to develop these for use in the town centres project. An added benefit of this work was that it led to the publication of detailed Local Authority floorspace and rateable value information, in Floorspace and Rateable Value for Commercial and Industrial Properties 2000, which is of itself valuable for central government, planners, and the property industry.

Once the data sources had been established, these could then be used to identify concentrations of town centre activities. The employment data showed where people were employed in town centre activities, and also where there was a diversity of these activities, and the floorspace data showed where there was a concentration of development of the type that would be expected in a town centre. Indicators were developed from the data sources that represented the level of activity, the diversity and the property development at a postcode level. They were then combined together using Geographic Information System techniques to obtain an overall measure of town centre activity, which could be mapped across London. This index was then used to generate boundaries, by choosing a cut-off level, and defining the areas above that level as areas of town centre activity. 

Once boundaries had been created, the employment, turnover and floorspace data sets could then be fed into them to produce a set of statistics for each area.

Now available online
An important part of the project has been ensuring the availability of the data, in particular making sure that cost does not prevent users from accessing the data. The ODPM has published the report online at where it can be accessed for free. This page also contains a link to interactive maps and statistics for the London town centres that can be interrogated online in a variety of ways. The report, maps and statistics are also available in hard copy and on CD-ROM respectively, and can be purchased from The Stationery Office.

Future work
The London Pilot Study is an important step towards the goal of producing a national set of data and maps covering England and Wales. The ODPM is now working on extending the coverage of the boundaries, and if these prove to be of a sufficient quality they will also be published on the Internet. One of the real strengths of the project will come when the data start to be updated on a regular basis, building up a time series for the town centres, and continued commitment from the ONS and the VOA as well as ODPM is required to ensure this happens.

Work also remains to be done on improving the data quality. While the feedback on the London publication has indicated that the majority of the statistics are sound, it has also shown that local knowledge exists that could be used to improve accuracy. The ODPM intends to explore the best way of doing this with Local Authorities and the ONS.

While the publication of the results of the London Pilot Study represents a major breakthrough in filling the information void that currently exists around town centres, the future work programme shows how much more is still to come!