The challenges Midsomer Norton High Street faces are not new and they are not unique. Every town centre in the country, large or small, rural or urban, has been impacted by the Covid lockdowns, Ian Nockolds writes for The Journal:
Indeed, research published by the Centre for Cities shows that City centres have been hit hardest, due to the fact that much of their Pre-pandemic success was built on office workers, estimating that “nearly seventy per cent of the gap to pre-Covid spending levels is the result of missing weekday spend”.
The pandemic also exacerbated the existing problems with store vacancy rates, with research published by the Local Data Company and PwC for 2020, showing that chain businesses had a twenty nine percent fall in the number of occupied units (a net loss of 9,877 units), driven largely by very low numbers of new openings. There was better news for independents, with a slowing of store closures fuelled by an increase in the number of occupied units by five percent in 2020. Indeed, there is better news for suburban high streets, with the Centre for Cities reporting that vacancy rates have risen at a slower rate than in city centres.
But Covid hasn’t been the only show in town. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, in their February 2019 report, High streets and town centres 2030, identified online shopping as the main structural change to people’s shopping habits. They also identified four systemic issues that were preventing the high street from successfully adapting to current pressures:
· Too much retail space, both within high streets and in terms of the size of some individual shops;
· Fragmented ownership, where so many people own different parts of the high street that coming up with a cohesive response to pressures becomes too difficult;
· High fixed costs of business rates and rent
· High and inflexible rates of taxation that do not affect online retailers in the same way.
Other trends are perhaps more positive for small, independent retailers. Research published by Deloitte in 2021 looking at the future of the High Street found that 37% of UK consumers said they would be more likely shop from businesses that offer locally produced products, even if it costs a bit more. There was evidence of a greater level of commitment to small independent businesses that can identify the origin of their goods and an increased interest in independent operators in reaction to the environmental impact of chains.
Even in the face of increasing socio-economic challenges, the Great British High Street is showing signs of endurance. The Deloitte research suggests that despite business closures and the move to online shopping, leisure businesses posses the potential for the High Street to transform itself once again, as the “need and value of social interaction and personalised experiences has never been more important”. Next week we will explore what opportunities exist for town centres to reinvent themselves and how the leisure industry can underpin a High Street revolution.