Reviving the high street
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BY HOLLY WHITBREAD
The coronavirus has been a disaster for the High Street. With countless shop doors forced to close for the sake of public health, many feared that this pandemic would be the final nail in the coffin of the British High Street, which has been declining for some time.
However, the Treasury Schemes have provided a lifeline for many High Street businesses during this period. Job retention, grants and bounce back loans have been the life support keeping many businesses alive.
As the High Street gradually awakens from its current coma, it will return to a new world. This new world will have many challenges, with a post-COVID recession on the cards and constraints to normal business practices because of the virus. However, with a spirit of entrepreneurialism, coupled with a greater emphasis on the value of local products and services, these factors may set the right conditions for our High Streets to be revitalised.
In recent weeks businesses have had to consider how they will survive, rationalising their expenses and revising their business practices, as well as addressing historic issues that pre-date the lockdown. This crisis has shown the importance of adaptability. Some have found this easier than others.
Moving forward, good service, fair prices and high quality will be the key to survival. The mantras of ‘shop local’ and ‘buy British’ will be endorsed if people feel it is the most convenient and safest option, which provides value for money and excellent customer experience.
Smaller businesses must modernise to compete with commercial giants. The Internet should become the ally not the enemy of the smaller businesses that line our High Streets. This includes embracing e-commerce and effective digital marketing, to ensure future operations are not limited. From reward schemes to subscriptions, to click and collect, businesses of all size must up their game and be creative to ensure physical premises survive.
A silver lining of the current health crisis is the somewhat nostalgic sense of community which it has invoked. As we reshape the High Streets for the future, it is important to embrace the current mood of the nation.
With a positive vision and strong partnerships between local authorities, organisations and private companies, our High Streets can be rebuilt. Joined up thinking should be promoted, peppering High Streets with services such as libraries, Citizen’s Advice, and flexible working spaces, alongside shops and food outlets. Furthermore, new residential accommodation in or around High Streets should be encouraged to increase footfall. When re-thinking High Streets to maximise usage, they should become community hubs and social spaces.
Investment in High Streets should continue, to help maintain jobs and attract new business. Short term, less costly solutions such as periods of free parking for visitors may provide a boost to local shops. Whilst it is fundamental that local authorities show flexibility, utilising pavements for ques and additional seating. The recent announcement of a £50 million fund for councils to transition to the new normal is very welcome. Longer-term, measures such as pedestrianisation are just one of the ways High Streets can be upgraded for the new world.
Business must be at the heart of the national plan for COVID recovery. Throughout the pandemic this Conservative Government has proved itself to be a friend to business. As we move out of the lockdown phase, the focus will be on protecting jobs and saving companies. Therefore, it is vital that the Government remain wedded to the spirit of its manifesto which sought to support local businesses and resuscitate High Streets with a range of measures, from cutting business rates for small retailers to supporting suburban regeneration by deploying the ‘Towns Fund’ in 100 locations across the UK. Further to this, there must be a drive to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs. We should create a pro-business climate where people work hard, feel able to take calculated risks and are supported by competitive taxation.
There is no point pretending that the coming weeks and years are going to be easy for the High Street and the businesses which populate them. But our post-COVID recovery should be used as an opportunity to innovate and adapt. Business, local, and national government can now rethink our High Streets and ensure they are fit for the modern world and become the centre of thriving communities up and down the United Kingdom.
Holly Whitbread is the Deputy Chair, Political of Epping Forest Conservatives and the Deputy Chair of Conservative Young Women. As a District Councillor, she is the Cabinet member for Housing. Follow her on twitter: @HollyLWhitbread