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Decline of Norfolk’s high streets ‘fast-forwarded’ due to lockdown

PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 April 2020 | UPDATED: 08:31 22 April 2020

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Norwich Castle Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Norwich Castle Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Archant

Retail experts have warned the coronavirus has “hit the fast-forward button” on the decline of the high street and thousands of units will be standing empty by the end of the year.

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Lady wearing face mask outside the Royal Arcade Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Lady wearing face mask outside the Royal Arcade Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Lockdown has been particularly tough on bricks-and-mortar retailers with an estimated 70% of the high street completely closed during the pandemic.

But experts have said potential closures are not a pessimistic view but a realistic expectation.

Professor Joshua Bamfield is the director of the Centre for Retail Research based in Norwich’s Rose Lane.

Quiet streets in Ipswich as the country enters the fourth week of lockdown  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNQuiet streets in Ipswich as the country enters the fourth week of lockdown Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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He highlighted that the high street was already wobbling before the coronavirus crisis, with restaurant chains including Jamie Oliver’s and Carluccio’s collapsing into administration.

Prof Bamfield said: “What lockdown has done is essentially hit the fast-forward button. What we would have seen in a couple of years time we will see much sooner for a number of reasons.

“The first is that the high street was already in trouble, so it was in a weaker position to begin with. The second is that the public will be nervous after this. After the initial flurry, there will still be a level of uncertainty about income and the future.”

This spells trouble for high street stalwarts like John Lewis which is already struggling to offset its store closures with online sales.

Lowestoft during lockdown on Saturday, April 11, during the Easter weekend. PHOTO: ArchantLowestoft during lockdown on Saturday, April 11, during the Easter weekend. PHOTO: Archant

In a trading update posted this week, John Lewis revealed its total sales tumbled 17% in the weeks since March 15 – and said in the worst case this could plunge to 35%.

Elsewhere Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston have already collapsed blaming the coronavirus.

“One thing that may come out of this is reduced rents,” said Prof Bamfield. “You just have to look at what happened with House of Fraser and Intu. That company is already seen as vulnerable and it’s the biggest retail landlord in the country. If landlords want to see their shops occupied they’re going to have to take a look at the level of income they previously expected and make a decision.”

Loss of occupied sites is something Great Yarmouth has struggled with recently.

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Queues can be seen out side all major banks, Natwest Norwich. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Queues can be seen out side all major banks, Natwest Norwich. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Jonathan Newman is town centre manager at the Great Yarmouth Town Centre Partnership, and said it was “no secret” that the seaside resort had struggled with occupation.

He said: “We have struggled with business occupation, but I would swiftly follow that with the fact that this is why the ‘Future High Street’ fund was launched by the government. There’s no crystal ball we can look into and see what our high street is going to look like in 12 months time.

“I suspect that the hospitality industry will suffer because early indications are that they won’t be able to reopen for months. With that in mind I think we’ll see more of a community aspect brought into our high street – perhaps an education hub and other facilities for the public as a whole.”

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He added: “What is really important to state at this point is that there is an extraordinary amount of government support to be had. Great Yarmouth Borough Council has paid out nearly £20million to business during lockdown but I believe there is still 30% or 40% who are eligible and haven’t applied. I would definitely urge businesses to make the most of this support when they can.”

As a result of businesses failing on an international basis, enterprise leaders are adjusting their sights on a smaller scale.

Dan Poitras is the chairman of Lowestoft Vision, the BID organisation for the seaside market town.

Mr Poitras said that he and his team were “planning for the worst but hoping for the best”.

“We are still working with local stakeholders on the plans for the future of the town centre, but bearing in mind that much of it will be subject to change,” he said.

“We’ve been looking at changing the dynamic of the town centre. Currently all the shops are in one part and usually market towns have more of a square shape, so there are discussions about potentially extending it and connecting it to the beach with a tram.”

He added: “Something we are bearing in mind is that potentially people will be less likely to travel – even when lockdown is lifted. We see a lot of our traffic with people coming up from London, and this could increase. As such part of our plan is looking as aspects of the leisure industry that we could bring in and increase. This could be escape rooms, virtual reality playrooms that we’re now seeing popping up, and so on.”

The prolonged closure of pubs and restaurants will have a major impact on the future of towns.

The chair of Ipswich Vision Partnership, Terry Hunt, said: “This is a very important part of life in our town and everyone would love to see them being able to reopen. But we cannot do anything like that while this virus is still out there and while there is a danger of it returning.

“If that means being closed until Christmas or even later, 
then so be it. We cannot risk public health – and I’m not sure that people would be prepared to use them if they thought there was a danger of the virus returning and hitting them.”


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