How the collapse of the high street in Covid times could be a good thing for Leeds’ new businesses

Nathen Allen, a Young Voices UK contributor, reflects on the decline of the high street and why the government should not intervene in saving it:

Friday, 12th March 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 12th March 2021, 10:07 am
Date: 2nd December 2020. Picture James Hardisty. Shoppers returned back to the high street in Leeds on the first day after the second national lockdown and the run-up to Christmas.

In 2019, 16,000 high street shops closed – 61 per working day. Yet, the number of small businesses actually grew between 2019 and 2020 by 1.9 per cent. Even without these numbers, it’s obvious that nearly identical clothing outlets packed together in close proximity were a huge waste of space.

The pandemic just hastened the inevitable, culling the herd of businesses clogging up our streets.

Now that large clothing outlets and betting shops are closing to shift online, there is ample room for cafes and restaurants to move in. Since they take up far less space, they’ll do so with far greater density. 

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With the larger companies taking their money and leaving the brick and mortar scene, the commercial real estate market will likely correct itself. Small businesses will no longer be kept at the fringes by astronomically high rents.

Some will say this will permanently destroy thousands of jobs. On the contrary - this collapse creates the opportunity for a small business boom which will replace those jobs.

Small business already accounts for 60 per cent of employment and that figure will only grow.

The removal of large and bloated stores will allow us to bring our streets back to a human scale. With no more need for the bulging retail blocks and the car parks that used to accommodate them, we finally have the opportunity to pedestrianise our streets. This is a win for local communities and for the planet.

We can build new green spaces, an initiative some local governments are already embracing – like Birmingham  where it was recently announced they will transform former unused retail space into several new parks. 

Furthermore, new housing can be provided above these smaller shops. Entire streets, for that matter, could easily be converted into high-density housing to alleviate Britain’s ever-growing housing crisis. The government has already supported this idea.

The Treasury, however, is exploring the implementation of an online sales tax, to ‘save the high street.’ This won’t work. It will harm consumers and further delay the transformation of our streets into something better and more productive.

In propping up the high street, the government would act like Sisyphus. No matter how well it pushes the high street up the hill of financial decline, it will only roll back down.  

After the restrictions of the pandemic are lifted, the government should get past the first four stages of grief and let consumers decide how they want their streets to look, not the dying retail chains who demand taxes on their competitors.

High street firms may not like the way it looks in the end, but the great British street will survive and thrive.

The collapse of the high street is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the beginning of something great.