Figures released by Leeds City Council, via the Datamill North website, showed the number of people in the city centre from October 16 to December 31 fell from 11,694,291 in 2017 to 10,997,126 in 2019 – a drop of almost six per cent.
One Leeds city centre trader claimed many businesses in the area saw their worst ever Christmas periods in 2019, believing the main reason to be the rise in cheap online shopping.
While the council acknowledged that the past few years had been tough for high streets, it claimed that Leeds was coping better than many other city centres.
Leeds Business Improvement District (LeedsBID), claimed the way people used city centres was changing, and that the challenge was around creating experiences to entice people into town.
The statistics for December alone are even more damning, showing a drop from 4,979,127 in 2017 to 4,616,573 in 2019 – a drop of nearly 7.3 per cent.
James Greenhalgh owner of Flamingo Cafe in Grand Arcade, said: “Footfall is important to us because the more people that are on our streets, the more people that are going to come into the shop and buy things.
“My December was nowhere near what it should have been – and speaking to other businesses, they said it was the worst December they had ever had – some were 30 per cent down on where they thought they were going to be.
“Big companies like Marks & Spencer can cope with a bad month, but for independent businesses, it’s money we don’t have and can’t reinvest.”
According to the Datamill website, footfall is monitored by eight cameras in various locations around the city centre monitoring numbers of people walking past.
It added: “These cameras calculate numbers on an hourly basis. This data can help identify footfall trends in the city centre and helps city centre management.”
Leeds City Council claimed latest figures showed only a 0.5 per cent drop overall footfall for the whole of 2019 compared to the whole of 2018, adding this favoured well against other UK cities.
The authority’s leader Coun Judith Blake (Lab) said: “It’s positive to see that Leeds city centre continues to perform strongly against the backdrop of what is undoubtedly a challenging time for retail and high streets nationally.
“Over the past ten years, we have seen our city centre offer expand exponentially, with our retail and leisure sectors growing in both diversity and resilience and new and exciting developments gaining international recognition.
“This has enabled the city to absorb the impact of changing retail trends and economic ebbs and flows better than most.
“This robustness has also allowed us to look to the future and explore new ways of ensuring that our city centre remains attractive and successful as it continues to expand and evolve in the coming years.”
Karen Butler, head of place management and delivery at LeedsBID added: “Generally people are changing the way they use their city centre, and not just at Christmas, and as a result, footfall patterns are shifting.
“Our role as a business improvement district is to help animate and enhance Leeds city centre, looking at new ways to bring a range of rich colourful experiences which showcase all the city has to offer and attract people to come here.”
She gave the example of the Leeds Jurassic Trail in summer 2019, which drew an estimated 200,000 people into the city centre to see five animatronic dinosaurs and take part in associated activities; as well as last year’s Leeds International Festival, which is set to return to the city centre from April 30 this year.
She concluded: “LeedsBID collaborates with key partners across the city and sectors to ensure Leeds city centre continues to offer new experiential activities while celebrating the uniqueness of the place.”
But Mr Greenhalgh believes high street shops are not playing on a level playing field with online competitors.
He said: “To me it is very clear that the number one reason is online shopping. It’s an uneven playing field – we have all sorts of different tax to pay, such as VAT and business rates. The online giants pay practically nothing.
“I don’t blame people for shopping online – I sometimes do it myself – but it’s not a level playing field.
“The government needs to look at how it can better regulate online businesses. It might mean online companies will have to charge a little more, but we are already having to charge more.”