The Observatory

Aug 2020

The safety of the high street

Are you back finding yourself saying… ‘just nipping to the shops?’ if not, why not? What is stopping you stepping foot onto the high street?

Fear? Ease? Stress? Lost interest? Changed your behaviour? Online all the way for you now?

We are all well aware of the impact that the Covid-19 virus has had on the UK economy. Nowhere was this more apparent than on our depleted high streets, with year on year footfall 80% down at lockdown peak, when all but essential shops closed their doors.

Well before the virus, the UK’s high streets were having it tough, weak demand, Brexit uncertainty, rising public policy costs, more shoppers turning to online retail. We saw increasing store closures, from fashion and food, to banks and beer, bricks and mortar retail was clearly struggling.

In an attempt to help kick-start the safe re-opening of high streets and with funds available from the 1st of June ‘The High Street Safety Fund’ was announced in late May by Simon Clarke the high street minister. A sum of £50m allocated on a per capita basis, to all local authorities across the UK to help small and medium sized businesses recover. This money via the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is to support practical measures so businesses can re-open quickly, get staff get back to work and enable customers to return to shops, confident that they feel safe.

In practice this means measures such as new street signs and markings, barriers to control pedestrian flow near business premises, measures to make spaces next to businesses safer, spending can also take place on local marketing campaigns highlighting the changes to the public. Local authorities are at liberty to define the specific shopping streets within which their funds are allocated and are encouraged to brief agencies and suppliers to deliver an ‘Open For Business, Safely’ message within any campaigns.

Much of this money has yet to be spent, with campaigns being tendered and allocated over the coming few weeks and spend taking place from October to December 2020, it is expected any residual monies will spent by March 2021.

Now that most high street enterprises have commenced trade and whilst there is still some way to go to return to pre-viral footfall levels a shifting pattern in consumer behaviours can be clearly seen across the UK. The prevailing continuation of working from home and safe shopping within a known community have seen trips to major city and town centres curtailed. The emerging recovery focus is around smaller more local and neighbourhood centres, the very same high streets that before the virus had struggled.

It certainly not over yet and there is still some way to go to see footfall numbers at pre-covid levels however it appears that local neighbourhood stores are leading the recovery charge, followed by shopping centres and out of town stores, where shopper numbers can be carefully controlled and personal travel is available.

Our major city and town centres are going to be the last to recover, as congestion and public transport carries with it the most viral concern. This could be a concern for us all, our town and cities are the economic heartbeat of the UK, they need to function effectively and to some degree they need to support viable workplaces

As such and given that these areas are where the majority of our employers are housed, it is perhaps there where at a proportion of High Street Safety Fund messages should focus?

Maybe a singular message – the micro and the macro, a safe neighborhood retailer message to live near and a safe travel to work message…perhaps it’s time to revisit those High Street Safety Fund briefs?