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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

// What's next for the high street?

Spring 2020 will be one for the history books as Covid-19 takes hold across the globe. But we need to start the thinking about what we could be facing on the other side, and take advantage of the opportunities where they exist, says placemaking consultant BEN STEPHENSON.

The rolling news cycle is both excrutiating and addictive, with small, incremental developments about the spread of coronavirus available at every page-refresh. It's exhausting and unhealthy to fixate on the immediate problem without also looking beyond, to how we plan for the recovery.

With vacancy rates already at an all-time high, and footfall down by nearly 80% year-on-year, one thing that seems likely is that some of the changes we were seeing on the high street before the crisis will be accelerated. However, other issues created by the crisis will become apparent and, indeed, there will be some (relative) winners too.

Data: © Springboard

Despite the fact that the Treasury business support package is more generous than may have been expected, daily reports of layoffs are coming in. Last week, Chiquito announced that 61 out of 80 restaurants in the UK would not reopen after the crisis has abated, indicating that the coronavirus crisis has hastened the end of the chain. Others in both the hospitality and the retail sector will surely follow. And because the backslide will affect all sectors of the economy with a predicted economic contraction of 15%, The Guardian terms what threatens to follow 'The Greater Depression'.

With both independents and chains at risk, the key factor is cashflow and whether the business has the reserves to ride out the storm. But confidence in the recovery is also leading to shareholders and boards making decisions to cut losses, wiping colossal sums from global stockmarkets.

Despite the post-Covid likelihood of a severely diminished retail and hosptitality sector, on the opportunity side, those food stores that have responded quickly to develop home deliveries and in-store systems, are performing well enough, whether independents or multiples. Equally, some restaurants and bars, taking advantage of the relaxation of take-away rules, have adapted to online ordering systems as quarantined customers turn to their favourite local for supplies.

Many of them would never have considered incorporating an online delivery element as part of their business model. But with necessity the mother of invention, they have learned quickly and many will probably continue offering this service on the other side of the crisis, if they are permitted to do so.

Despite the tech having been available for some time on platforms like Shop Appy, the neighbourhood digital offer looks to have been much more readily embraced by loyal local customers, confronted with the heartbreaking hand-written signs on the windows of their favourite coffee shops. This boosted loyalty factor, coupled with the scenes of panic buying and queues at supermarkets, could help to nudge consumption behaviours towards localism.

It is likely that a great many people will move to working from home on a more permanent basis post-Covid, saving money for recovering companies and providing flexibility for employees. As a result we should see a resurgence in the neighbourhood offer to support that lifestyle - the work-orientated coffee shop, the local cafe/deli and the reinvented pub for some sorely-missed social contact.

Consequently, a policy area for consideration in recovery planning is reviewing how use-classes and licencing rules can allow businesses to provide a wider range of services, both online and off. This would support an acceleration of the new high street business models we are seeing already, and which respond to these changed lifestyles.

Additionally, on the planning front, the shift towards home working could release office space for (responsible) conversion to residential accommodation in town centres, increasing environmentally compatible urban intensification and reinforcing the notion of the town centre neighbourhood. Contractions in retail could lead to similar conversion to resi.

As retail rental values drop, recovery will need to be demand-led. Local communities will work with landowners, universities, local authorities, and the third sector to develop a wide range of demands beyond retail and seeking ways to secure its provision. Done right, it's likely that our high streets will begin to look very different from one another for the first time in decades.

Support for local business communities will also be important. It will be make-or-break time for Business Improvement Districts who will need to prove their value at a time when money is tighter than it's ever been for levy-payers. Those BIDs that are sucessful will be lobbying for political and financial support, coordinating the efforts of retail and hospitality businesses, putting the out-of-workin touch with local vacancies, protecting empty premises and developing the campaign to encourage people back once the crisis abates. In the post-Covid landscape they will need to work with a wider range of stakeholders to coax commercial centres back to life.

We cannot know how long this will take to play out, and that's one of the biggest factors in determining the toll coronavirus will take on the economy. If, as some predictions suggest, we will still be practising social distancing in October 2020, the wider economic impact will likely be pretty devastating.

What we can productively do is study the successes, the opportunities businesses are taking to respond to changing patterns of demand, our new ways of communicating. On a practical note, we can also support our local retailers, arts organisations and services where possible by taking our business online.

There seems little doubt that this is a watershed moment for society. Our task is to learn the lessons where we can and redesign where the old habits were failing us.


Ben Stephenson is a consultant working with a wide range of clients including public bodies, communities, developers and BIDs on placemaking initiatives.

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