The Covid-19 pandemic has cost the largest cities in the South West more than six months of potential revenue and led to store closures, a new report reveals.
The Cities Outlook 2022 report – the Center for Cities’ annual economic assessment of the UK’s largest urban areas – finds Bristol fared the worst in terms of lost sales during the Covid crisis and its lockdowns .
Meanwhile, Plymouth was the worst in the region for an increase in empty city center shops over the same period – and sixth nationally.
The report reveals that Covid-19 has cost some cities and major town centers in the South West more than six months of potential revenue since March 2020.
The Bristol center was the hardest hit, losing 38 weeks of sales between the first lockdown and the start of Omicron. Businesses in Exeter and Swindon city centers were also among the hardest hit, with 35 and 28 weeks of lost sales respectively. Plymouth lost 25 weeks and Gloucester City Center lost the fewest sales weeks (16 weeks) in the South West during the pandemic.
Nationally, Covid-19 has cost businesses in city centers and major cities more than a third (35%) of their potential revenue since March 2020, with central London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff being the more affected.
Also, of the 52 city centers studied, 2,426 commercial premises became vacant during the pandemic, compared to 1,374 between 2018 and 2020.
Plymouth, with a 5.8% rise in vacancies, was the worst hit in the region, and behind only Oxford, the worst hit in the UK with an 8.4% rise, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Northampton and Cardiff, across the country.
Plymouth now has 19.1% of its city center commercial units empty, the third worst total in the South West – behind Gloucester and Swindon – and the 25th worst in the UK. Exeter, by contrast, has just 12.9% of its city center units unoccupied, eighth best in the UK and just behind London.
But the report found that high streets in economically weaker places were less affected by Covid-19. Meanwhile, in economically stronger places, business closures have increased during the pandemic.
This suggests that government support for Covid-19 has been successful in stemming the decline of many struggling shopping streets, but has been less effective in economically stronger places due to higher rents and a lack of custom of the from office workers.
Downtowns with a higher share of jobs easily done from home suffered more weeks of lost sales, the report said.
The report found that stronger city centers relied on a larger catchment area that was temporarily shrinking, and the number of lost sales weeks was higher in cities with a more affluent catchment area.
That said, while stronger city centers have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, their higher levels of wealth mean that, if restrictions end and office workers return, they will likely recover quickly.
Meanwhile, while government support has protected weaker places, it may just have been hoarding pain for the future. The report warns that many less prosperous places in the South West are facing a wave of new business closures this year.
To avoid permanently leveling prosperous places, policymakers should campaign to encourage leisure visitors to return safely and provide part-time memberships to encourage workers to return to the office.
For struggling places, the policymakers writing the White Paper on Leveling Up should focus on addressing the fundamental economic problems of struggling places to deal with the decline of shopping streets.
This means investing in skills and ways to strengthen the wider local economy to increase money in the pockets of shoppers, rather than “cosmetic” quick fixes such as “hanging baskets and storefronts of painting”.
Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Center for Cities, said: “While the pandemic has been a difficult time for all high streets, it has leveled the most prosperous cities and towns in the South West. Despite this, the strength of their wider local economies means they are well positioned to recover quickly from the past two years.
“The biggest concern is in economically weaker places – mainly in the North and Midlands – where Covid-19 has actually halted their long-term decline.
Business Live’s South West business reporter is William Telford. William has over a decade of experience reporting on the business scene in Plymouth and the South West. It is based in Plymouth but covers the whole region.
To contact William: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org – Phone: 01752 293116 – Mob: 07584 594052 – Twitter: @WTelfordHerald – LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com – Facebook: www.facebook.com/william.telford.5473
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“To help them avoid a wave of high street closures this year, the government needs to set out how it plans to upskill people and pay to give them the income needed to maintain a thriving high street. Many of these places are within the so-called red wall, so there is a political imperative for the government to act quickly, as well as an economic imperative.
Center for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities. It is a charity that works with cities, businesses and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies. It does this through unbiased research and knowledge exchange.