Coronavirus acting as a catalyst for change in town centres
Coronavirus has hit crowded urban centres hardest, as populations living in close proximity contributed to the pandemic’s spread. London’s pandemic experience peaked early compared to most, while many other towns and cities have fared worse relative to their populace.
Cardiff has the highest number of confirmed cases, with 603 cases per 100,000 population. Sunderland records the highest number of cases per population in England, with 500 cases per 100,000 people. Blackpool and Sheffield have not been far behind, according to Public Health England data.1
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to be relaxed, allowing many shops and businesses to reopen, it is becoming apparent that the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for longer term changes to the local economies of town centres. Many high street businesses will not survive, while others have adapted to cling on, and some are even flourishing through circumstances or innovation.
As lockdown brought social distancing, so existing e-commerce trends have accelerated. Online giant Amazon has already revealed it is hiring 75,000 more workers to cope with online shopping demand.2
Online outlets have offered many lifelines, while other businesses have transformed their products, from gin distilleries turning to manufacturing hand sanitiser,3 to local pubs switching to selling fruit and vegetables.4
Takeaway delivery applications businesses have seen demand soar. By April, JustEat had recorded more than 3,000 new local businesses joining its app, as restaurants across Britain faced a choice between switching to takeaway options or stopping all business outright.5
The overnight switch to remote working for millions of employees will almost certainly outlive the pandemic. The UK Government has already indicated it wants people to continue remote working after restrictions continue to be eased.6 Almost half (45%) of workers expect to work more flexibly after lockdown restrictions on UK businesses are lifted, according to YouGov polling research.7
Increased redundancies caused by the economic strain COVID-19 has placed on local businesses can also be expected to increase the number of freelancers and contractors working, at least temporarily, within the gig economy, a sector which has grown in recent years. Flexible working and remote working behaviours were already a trend before COVID-19, but the pandemic’s effects will have increased their prevalence in the longer term.
Where there is some potential good news for town centres is in house buying and building trends. The UK government has already announced it wants to quicken and increase a stimulus to the economy as it recovers from COVID-19.8
Beyond Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Build, build, build” rhetoric, the scale of the plans remains politically contentious. However, ideas for turning unused commercial properties into new residential housing, helping reduce a national shortfall, could help revitalise many town centres. Enticing in new residents, could in turn create demand for fresh businesses to set up shop.
Some of these new home owners and renters will be welcomed into smaller towns as they flee city life, following trends seen across borders. High rental and house prices have driven Millennial and Generation X buyers from cities such as London, Paris and New York, helping to revitalise smaller towns and villages in the wake of the pandemic.9
While many may have previously feared finding work, the remote working trends accelerated by Coronavirus could help workers settle in smaller towns, providing a welcome lift to local economies as town centres work to recover from the lockdown period. Those local authorities that are able to entice remote workers to their towns and small cities are likely to be able to emerge in better shape from the economic challenge that will follow in the wake of COVID-19.
Published Date 9th July 2020
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2 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2020/04/13/amazon-hires-another-75000-staff-cope-covid-19- demand/
4 https://covid19-mylocal.uk/supplies-services/united-kingdom/greater-london/london/butcher-meat- fresh-produce/crystal-palace-flower-company/
6 https://www.cloudpro.co.uk/operations/business-management/8549/uk-government-wants-remote- working-to-continue-after-lockdown
7 https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/half-workers-expect-work-more-flexibly-post- lockdown-survey
8 https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/boris-johnson-unveils-radical-reforms-to-planning-system- to-help-build-build-build-uk-out-of-coronavirus-crisis
9 https://www.wsj.com/articles/escape-to-the-country-why-city-living-is-losing-its-appeal-during-the- pandemic-11592751601