It is 9.15am on the warmest day of the year so far, and Southend-on-Sea High Street is eerily quiet. Towards the southern end, near the Essex town’s Thames estuary waterfront, a herring gull paces up and down outside a chip shop. If it’s waiting for scraps, it could be there a while; above the shuttered fast food outlet is a “shop to let” sign.
A passerby, Bernadette De Villiers, is disappointed; she has come into the town centre to go to the bank – but it is not yet open.
“I thought there would be slightly more going on than this,” De Villiers says. She believes the blanket lockdown was an overreaction. “I think there’s only so long that you can pretend something is far more deadly than it actually is,” she says.
Next to the chippie, a small greengrocer’s is open, although the owner, Mohammad Lim, isn’t sure how much longer he can keep going. “Business is very bad,” he says. “I would say 80% down.” Even with small business rate relief, he’s having to pay £3,000 a month rent plus bills, and at the moment there’s not enough money coming in to cover that.
“The council doesn’t do a good job encouraging people to come to the high street. We are hoping now, in the summertime, people will come out again.”
From this week a gradual easing of the lockdown will see outdoor markets and car showrooms in England given the green light. A more liberal policy from 15 June will see thousands of mothballed high street shops, shopping centres and department stores, including John Lewis, opening their doors.
The electronics shop Currys, the homewares retailer Dunelm and the car accessories chain Halfords have already opened stores, while Ikea says it will open its 19 outlets on 1 June, with one its largest just a few miles down the Thames at Grays.
A walk down the high street in Southend – and hundreds like it up and down the UK – tells a bleak story of the immediate and lasting impact that Covid-19 is having on business.
Some shops have survived, even thrived, during the lockdown; but many have not. Big names have been humbled.
In Royals shopping centre, Debenhams, once the flagship of this and other high streets, is closed. This branch of the veteran retailer is due to reopen post lockdown, unlike some others in the country after the company fell into administration for the second time in a year.
What was British Home Stores is now a building site, and a busy one as the construction sector is up and running in England. It’s going to be a Primark.
A little further up is Marks & Spencer, where a long queue has formed this morning – though well-observed physical distancing makes a queue seem longer than it really is.
Julie Johnson, a furloughed administrator, got here early and has already been in. “I would rather go to the shops than do it on the internet; I didn’t do home delivery before. Plus, I can buy the reduced stuff.”
Johnson thinks that when the health crisis is over the high street could be improved, with more individual shops. Not only does Southend have the same shops as every other high street, it has the same shops further along itself. “Boots, Greggs, H&M … . Actually, there’s three Greggs.”
There’s only one Bella Italia, a restaurant chain set to bring in administrators with 6,000 jobs at risk. And Patisserie Valerie had already closed last year.
It’s a reminder that the demise of the British high street was well under way before the coronavirus struck. In December, high street footfall was 3.5% down on the previous year, and 20.5% down in the last decade.
The high street has taken multiple hits over the years, from out-of-town shopping centres, the financial crisis, the internet, Jeff Bezos and Amazon.
The coronavirus crisis has massively accelerated the decline. Melanie Leech, the chief executive of the British Property Federation, said the predicted 50% reduction in shops on the average high street could happen in the next two years.
Ron Woodley, a Southend-on-Sea councillor, acknowledges the huge challenges and says high streets – not least his own – will have to adapt.
He does not agree with Lim, the greengrocer, that the council is not doing anything to help.
Woodley describes the major redevelopment programmes taking place, with hundreds of new town-centre homes being built, a new multistorey car park and a scheme that will allow people to park cheaply in town. “Also, we’re doing different things along the approaches to the High Street, tarting them up, putting in plants, different paving, making it attractive.”
But plants and paving are not going to be enough to bring people back. “This is where the government has got to think differently,” says Woodley. “You’ve got people like Amazon delivering in from warehouses outside, the business rates are lower, they are having a major impact on the high street and local shops.”
Woodley reckons Amazon – and other e-commerce companies – should be hit with a 20% delivery levy. “The government is going to have to raise money somewhere and that’s the way to do it.”
Woodley says there are plans to break the high street up into more distinct sections, with most of the big stores at each end, and between them sections of “cafe culture” and independent retailers.
Which would put Caddies, at the top end of Southend High Street, in the wrong place. But right now that’s the least of co-owner George Bejko-Cowlbeck’s worries.
“We’ve gone from being a good business to turning over absolutely zero,” he says. He’s not at work today and doesn’t know when he will be.
Caddies is a hybrid – bar, restaurant, crazy golf. Beijko-Cowlbeck and his business partner opened up here two years ago because it was cheaper than being in a shopping centre, but also because they understood and had faith in the High Street. “There are a lot of tourists in the summer, and even in the winter there are a lot of people in the evening; there’s a good social side. Retail is struggling, but the leisure side of it was doing quite well. Until this.”
The staff are furloughed, but outgoings don’t stop. Takeaway doesn’t work because Caddies is “an experience, you go there for the entertainment and the fun factor of it”.
The worry and uncertainty is not just about when they might be able to open again, but also whether it will be possible at all.
“People are part of the atmosphere of the venue. If you put social distancing in, it reduces our capacity down from about 120 covers to less than 50, and the rent doesn’t adjust. It could get to a point where it just starts to become unviable.”
Bejko-Cowlbeck says he’s an optimist, but he has worries for the street that his business relies on. “I think it will struggle,” he says. “I speak to some people and they’re itching to get back out; other people are living in fear. It’s a very complex situation. I think it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal. I hope by Christmas that we’ve learned to live with it better and feel more confident to return to the high street.”
He has no plans to get out of the hospitality and leisure sector; it’s where his heart is. “I would rather be happy on a sinking ship than sad in one that’s floating off into the distance,” he laughs.