As we grapple with the economic effects of the pandemic, policy-makers’ concerns have once again turned to the future of our high streets. Lockdown has dealt a heavy blow to many retail and hospitality businesses.
At its lowest point during lockdown, our data showed that average city centre footfall was just 15% of normal levels. Even as the country returns to normal, social distancing rules and enduring virus-phobia mean that many people are remaining at home.
High street businesses fail for one simple reason – a lack of customers. Before the pandemic it tended to be high streets in smaller, less economically successful cities and towns that struggled because of a lack of weekday office workers spending money.
Now, the opposite is true: footfall in Britain’s largest city centres is taking longer to bounce back than in smaller places. Again, this is due to a lack of office workers. In London, large numbers of office workers are remaining at home and many companies are considering switching permanently to remote working.
These are not cost-free choices. While working from home may suit employees and reduces companies’ overheads, it starves the retail and hospitality sectors of customers. We are already seeing the effects of this: Pret a Manger is closing 30 branches and axing jobs, while Selfridges is also making redundancies.
The labour market will eventually adjust to these changes and in the longer-term we may see new service jobs created in suburbs and town centres on the periphery of big cities. But this hollowing out of our city centres could take away much of what made them the exciting places that they were pre-COVID.
If we care about saving thousands of retail and hospitality jobs and preserving the vibrancy of our city centres then we need to that ensure workers return for at least part of the working week. Transport authorities can do their part by allowing flexible part-time season tickets for commuters, but public and private sector employers should also recognise that the choices they will make in the coming months will have consequences for the health of their local economies.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of the Centre for Cities