One of the meagre joys of lockdown has been embracing my local high street. Within a five-minute walk, the comforts north Londoners desire are trading prosperously: artisan coffee, sourdough loaves, grossly overpriced meat. Lukas, the young barista who serves flat whites, says that despite the lack of indoor dining “we are doing well and keeping above water”.
I have become strongly attached to these boutiques and the new community spirit. But there is little to cheer about on most high streets across the country. More than 200,000 jobs have been lost in retail since the pandemic began — a number that is expected to double. Big names such as Debenhams and Topshop have vanished.
When Britain starts to reopen, shoppers will not return to the streets they remembered. Chancellor Rishi Sunak hopes to slap on a plaster in his Budget on Wednesday with grants of up to £18,000 for 700,000 restaurants, pubs and shops. But with furlough and business support schemes ending this summer, ministers are braced for a wave of bankruptcies and redundancies.
Sunak faces a thorny challenge constructing a bridge out of lockdown while tackling a longer-term decline of town centres. As with much else about Britain’s economy, coronavirus has accelerated existing trends. Much about the traditional high street belongs to the past, when work was local, transport limited and small retailers dominated. Online shopping, cars and out of town retail parks have almost destroyed them.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, says that an extension of the rent moratorium, removing caps on government grants and extending business rates relief would be enough to see the hardest hit retailers through to the summer.
But she warns there is no consensus on the “new normal” for shops. “There is no silver bullet for fixing high streets. A reimagined town centre will include more housing, more care in the community, but also more spaces to cope with agile working and entertainment, as well as retail.”
The UK has been here at least twice before: retail guru Mary Portas published a review in 2011 outlining how to “save the high street”. In 2018, businessman John Timpson produced another, which concluded high streets had double the number of shops needed.
Solutions have always included a variety of cash pots: the towns fund, the “levelling up” fund, the “shared prosperity” fund, the “get us re-elected” fund. But a better answer lies in changes to planning and powers. Local governments need the authority and expertise to shape what their town centres look like and what amenities best serve their communities.
High streets in warmer parts of England may wish to make permanent the al fresco dining of the past year. Others may focus on green space, while some may be best served with new housing. Local character is important and so towns’ futures should be charted by local politicians, not Whitehall.
Improving the look and feel of high streets is at the heart of the Johnson government’s mission to improve the left-behind parts of England. But the high streets are important for wealthier towns and cities too: the shopping destinations of Oxford and Oxford Street are equally at risk.
While opinion polls suggest Britons are pleased at the speedy vaccine roll out, attention will soon turn to society on the other side of coronavirus. The economic scarring will be most apparent in retail: when lockdown ends, the first places people will venture will be their local shops, and the empty spots will be stark.
The politics of tangibility are often underestimated. Even if the economy rapidly bounces back from lockdown, it may not be felt by voters until their local environment improves. Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the 2019 Tory manifesto, says in her focus groups, people “always talk about things like: it’s clean, there are hanging baskets, the shops are open, there’s a market”.
On the high street, the UK urgently needs something more than a good nationwide tale of GDP and new job openings. Just ask those in my community, who discovered shops many had barely noticed on their dash into work before the pandemic.