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With the UK in its third national lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, high streets across the country are being deserted once again. In December, footfall for high streets was down nearly 51% year-on-year, the latest data from Springboard revealed.
But a new round of funding from the Future High Streets Fund is bringing fresh opportunities to a handful of city centres across England. Fifteen areas have been awarded a share of £255m as the government seeks to boost local communities. A further 57 areas have received provisional funding offers totalling up to £576m.
The Future High Streets Fund was launched in 2018 to renew and reshape town centres, as well as to protect and create thousands of jobs. Today, small businesses on the high street have the added challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic to contend with.
“High streets are the cornerstone of British life, but the last year has seen a series of radical changes to the way they operate,” Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) spokesperson Dan Bellis told Speciality Food. “In many areas, what used to be thriving clusters of small businesses risk becoming ghost-towns filled with shutters and closing down signs.”
Even for independent food retailers that have kept their doors open throughout the pandemic, reduced footfall due to the closure of cafés, restaurants and non-essential businesses means fewer sales.
“But there is hope for the nation’s much-loved highstreets, and it’s fantastic to see the government’s ambitious plans to create thousands of jobs,” Dan added. “Small firms are nothing if not resilient, which is why this money should be seen as an opportunity to restructure our high streets in a new, different way.”
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick said the investment would help town centres get through the pandemic and “build back better”.
“Despite the challenges, there is still a role for retail on the high street, and it must be remembered that independent retailers are at the heart of every good high street,” added Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira).
Over the coming years, he said that high streets must prioritise accessibility, a move to sustainability and connectivity and repurposing areas so that retail is “part of a more diverse range of activities including community, leisure, hospitality and residential”.
“Create the right environment for shoppers, and the small businesses will prosper,” he said.
Dan agreed that after a tumultuous year in 2020, the funding should be used to make significant improvements to town centres. “It shouldn’t be used to pay for additional flowerpots and hanging baskets, but instead bring about real change. This money is a chance to think differently and do differently in a post-Covid world. When it comes to repairing the economy, there’s no such thing as being too bold.”