UK’s biggest cities lose nearly a year of sales to Covid-related downturn

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UK’s biggest cities lose nearly a year of sales to Covid-related downturn
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Britain’s biggest cities have lost almost a year’s worth of sales during the coronavirus pandemic as lockdowns and a lack of office workers and tourists caused a collapse in consumer spending.

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As offices have started to reopen following the relaxation of plan B restrictions, the Centre for Cities said Covid-19 had “levelled down” historically more prosperous high street destinations.

London recorded the biggest drop for in-person spending for retail and hospitality, losing as much as 47 weeks’ worth of sales between March 2020 and November 2021 compared with the average value for weekly transactions in 2019 before the crisis hit.

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According to spending data compiled from anonymous card transactions, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff also lost nearly a year’s worth of sales as people stayed away from big city centres during the health emergency.

In comparison, towns and smaller cities have recorded a smaller drop in retail and hospitality, according to the thinktank’s annual Cities Outlook report for 2022. Burnley had the smallest drop in spending with the loss of just eight weeks of sales. Warrington, Huddersfield and Blackpool also lost relatively few sales compared with 2019.

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The study of 52 city and town centres showed a sharp increase in the number of commercial units falling vacant during the crisis, rising to 2,426 compared with an increase of 1,374 between 2018 and 2020.

However, it showed that high streets in economically weaker places have been less affected by the pandemic, with a smaller increase in vacancy rates than in bigger city centre locations.

Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, said the pandemic had had the effect of pausing the long-term decline of poorer parts of the country in the north and Midlands, helped by emergency economic support from the government.

However, he warned that while stronger cities had borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, their higher levels of affluence meant the end of restrictions should mean the return of office workers and a swift recovery.

“To help them avoid a wave of high street closures this year, the government must set out how it plans to increase people’s skills and pay to give them the income needed to sustain a thriving high street,” he said.

Retail consultancy Springboard said home working had led to the growth of “localism”, with consumers visiting nearby high streets when previously they would have shopped in city centres.

The most extreme example was in London: in 2021 footfall in outer London was 27% lower than in 2019, while in central London the drop was 52%.

The organisation said in 2022 it expected hybrid working to lead to more and longer visits to retail destinations in the evenings and at weekends, as well as an increase in people combining shopping and dining.

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