Local high streets will be the ones that leave lockdown better off than the big businesses in Leeds

As shops around the city begin to re-open from an enforced coronavirus closure there is hope that it will be the saving of independent businesses and local high streets.
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Over recent weeks, shops and businesses that have been closed for the best part of three months, have been preparing for a new way of trading in line with government requirements on social distancing.

However, there is concern that some big names won't survive and whether there is even a demand for shops as there was before, in light of the surge in online retail services and the impact long-standing local, independents traders have had in making sure homes across the city are stocked up.

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Mark Goldstone, Head of Business Representation & Policy at the West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, says Leeds is "getting through the end of the beginning" but asks "what does recovery look like?"

People in Briggate in Leeds yesterday.People in Briggate in Leeds yesterday.
People in Briggate in Leeds yesterday.

It comes as the Yorkshire Evening Post and JPI Media launch a nationwide campaign to support local as lockdown lifting gets underway for non-essential shops.

Mr Goldstone said: "We have got through the end of the beginning. What does recovery look like? China manufacturing and production rates are back to where they were, but retail has not. People are nervous about leaving their homes, going back to urban centres and shopping. If we follow suit, I can imagine, certainly with the conversations with retails over the last couple of weeks is what will they come back to?

"There is not a straight forward answer and it will be down to individual circumstances. It depends on the retail proposition and who customers are."

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He referred to the struggles that national chains such as Primark and Pizza Express were having and House of Fraser and Debenhams - all of which have a big presence in Leeds. If they go it leaves big buildings empty and poses the question about whether they will ever attract retail businesses again, what will the value of the buildings be and might they have to be subject to a change of use?

Big names on the high street are looking at how to re-open.Big names on the high street are looking at how to re-open.
Big names on the high street are looking at how to re-open.

He said: "That is another question for another day. Leeds city centre was in a good position but some town centres were really struggling as a consequence of the city doing well. We saw retail as thriving but that was not universal. In terms of retail we need to think what the future of the high street might be. Will it look the same prior to lockdown? I am not sure it will."

However, he said there had been a trend to return to suburban high streets and businesses which had been long forgotten about by shoppers.

Mr Goldstone said: "We appear to have fallen back in love with local shops. I did not realise there was a farm shop where I live that delivers milk. We have moved to them and we won't move away. There are local shops that moved quickly online with no queues. They might be more expensive but the quality is better. I question will we go back to a weekly big shop.

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"It can be positive for smaller centres and high streets. Local shops who people ignored for years were still open and people might come back to these."

What happens to some of the city's biggest buildings?What happens to some of the city's biggest buildings?
What happens to some of the city's biggest buildings?

There were also positive signs for local and British production and manufacturing. Following from Rolls Royce making ventilators instead of car engines and fashion houses making scrubs rather than clothes for the catwalk, other businesses that have varied their work also shouldn't be ignored says the business expert.

"I genuinely hope that we learn from this. Like Winston Churchill said 'don't waste a good crisis'. We have been involved with the NHS and PPE. The amount of manufacturers in our region that re-programmed production lines to make visors and face masks. The biggest challenge has been trying to get into the NHS to sell them or even give them away. One of the things we must learn from this, we cannot go back to buying cheap stuff from China. We need to take account of that.

"If something can be cheaper from China but made in the UK and we get a good price, people employed and taxes paid here- the overall benefit must be better for the UK. If that happens that will be a real plus. The whole 'levelling up' agenda is still going on in the background but is very much focused on places like Wakefield and Pudsey. We must not forget that whatever way we come out of it here, we have a real opportunity to switch things up and move the dial and make it about what is good for the UK and local businesses."