Jane, Embury, director
Wrightstyle recently cautiously welcomed the government’s pledge to “build, build, build.”
The prime minister has promised to build hundreds of thousands of new homes across the UK. He’s also promised investment in major infrastructure projects.
The prime minister likened his £5 billion pledge to US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930’s New Deal. That massive programme is credited with helping to lift the USA from the Great Depression.
Although we welcomed news of that investment, we remain sceptical of the wider value of simply building homes and large-scale projects.
It may make for big headlines, but does it make the biggest impact? We believe that there is another priority.
The Covid-19 crisis has pointed to a more fundamental aspect of the built environment that has social and economic implications for us all. Simply, our town centres, already under enormous pressure, are now facing a new period of unparalleled uncertainty.
High labour costs, rent and rates and diminishing footfall had already had an impact on the non-food retail sector prior to Covid-19.
From March 2016 to 2019, UK retail lost 106,000 jobs according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). The first half of 2019 saw a record net 1,234 stores disappear from Britain’s top 500 high streets.
The same period saw a total of 2,868 store closures, equivalent to 16 per day and the most for five years.
Of individual retail sectors, only 15 out of 96 sectors showed a net growth in store numbers. Only two of these sectors grew by double figures.
The biggest net declines were fashion retailers (-118), restaurants (-103), estate agents (-100) and pubs (-96).
Fast forward to this year, and a report from the Centre for Retail Research says that, this year so far, there have been over 50,000 retail job losses.
Those losses have come from the closure of 3,607 retail outlets. It’s predicted that closures will likely accelerate when the jobs furlough scheme comes to an end.
There’s also e-commerce competition. Well over 20% of all retail sales are now online, and the future of the high street looks bleak.
At Wrightstyle, we don’t believe that should be the case. We would like to see a new kind of partnership between central and local government. A new partnership to look at new ways to revive our town centres.
While creative leadership at a local level has made a difference in several towns, many local authorities are constrained by a lack of resources.
We believe that this is an area in which government should consider spending some of its newly-announced £billions.
Simply, a town centre affects the whole community. It’s a destination for shoppers, or those looking for leisure.
Take it away, or allow a dilapidated version of it to emerge, and you further drive away shoppers and create a spiral of decline.
Many town centres depend on what’s termed “twin visits.” We go to a particular shop or shops, and we twin that visit with one to a pub, restaurant or the Post Office.
Take away those reasons to shop locally and other retailers will struggle. The loss loss of the high street will also have a knock-on effect on the town itself.
It will become a less attractive place to live, house prices will be affected. Those who can will move out.
At Wrightstyle, we’ve been involved in many regeneration projects over the years, both here and abroad. We know the challenges involved in repurposing buildings for new uses.
But we also know the value of investing in the most local of local infrastructure projects. To give people new reasons to go to their high street.
But we also believe that, as lockdown eases, our high streets are going to find it increasingly hard to make ends meet. That’s why something drastic needs to be done now.
A report from the Centre for Retail Research suggests that, more than 17,000 UK shops are expected to close this year.
That forecast is 9% higher than the 16,073 shops that closed during the course of 2019. That’s according to the CRR’s Retail in Crisis end of year report.
It’s why we believe that the government should commit to working in partnership with communities and stakeholders up and down the country.
Breathing life into our towns makes good economic and social sense. But it has to happen now, because making it happen soon may be too late.