Pandemic will ‘vastly accelerate’ decline of UK high street, MPs told

The coronavirus pandemic will “vastly accelerate” the decline of the British high street, where the number of shops could more than halve in the next two years, MPs have been told.

The chief executive of the British Property Federation, Melanie Leech, said “inevitably there will be casualties” among retailers, and that predicted 50% reduction in shops on a typical high street was now likely to take place over a shorter timeframe.

Leech was asked by the business, energy and industrial strategy committee how many shops would be left in a high street of 100 outlets following the pandemic.

Referencing the long-term shift to online shopping, Leech said: “Because the high street is changing, we will need less physical retail going forward. That would already have looked in a couple of years’ time, before coronavirus, more like possibly 50 or 60 shops and a range of other uses being deployed in the high street.

“We will see empty premises, because not all businesses will make it through. I can’t put a number on that, but that trend was happening anyway and will be vastly accelerated by the impact of coronavirus.”

Andrew Goodacre, the chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, told MPs that 20% of its members may not reopen because it would be more expensive for them to run their shops if footfall is low.

The evidence from other countries such as Germany, where shops have started to reopen, suggests retail will be depressed for some time, said Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

She and the heads of the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) urged the government to taper off the Covid-19 business support measures gradually, to avoid a cliff edge if they are withdrawn fully.

Adam Marshall, of the BCC, warned that otherwise “you’re going to see a lot more businesses heading into insolvency”.

Speaking on behalf of retailers, Dickinson said: “The government really mustn’t turn off the tap once restrictions are lifted or when we get to the end of June, because there is no way that demand is going to just revert to what it was before. Certainly I have no doubt that people will be very cautious about how they shop for safety reasons and because of the pressure on money in their pocket.”

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