Lisa Mantle

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The Buggles told us “Video Killed the Radio Star” – Has COVID killed the high street and leisure?

Business Weekly / 17 May 2021

I don’t think any of us expected to be in Lockdown 3 in 2021.  Shops remain shut and the leisure and late-night sectors seem to have been picked on like the fat kid at school throughout the whole experience.


Property commentators are digging out their crystal balls to predict what will happen now.  So far, prime offices are still holding up nicely.  Retail on the other hand, even for institutional landlords, has been shocking. Professional office users have, through the wonders of IT Mexican-waved their workers to kitchen tables or home offices and have been able to continue to operate.  Office occupation is likely to see a downward trend as the population of home desk workers don’t all want to rush back in.  Pre-COVID, 5% of us worked from home, last year’s peak saw 47% fighting with the kids over the Wi-Fi.  Best guesses estimate a post lockdown readjustment to 27% homeworking.   The fall off may take a while to happen, but I believe we will see it, as leases come up for renewal or break clauses can be exercised.


Non-food retail has been able to keep going where a good online system was already in place.  But, if your shop needs people to come into it, you have been in trouble.  Some huge brands have gone to the wall including all Arcadia brands.  While some of these brands have been snapped up by Asos, they are not keeping the shops and the thousands of staff who worked in them.


Pubs and restaurants appear to have been selected for special treatment with ever-changing rules: open with tracking, no standing and close early, takeaway food and drink, food and drink together and now; takeaway food only.  For many, this has just been a recipe for debt.  Taking on loans to stay closed.  The British public will surge to the pubs the minute allowed but will they all still be there?  For a number of private equity-backed casual dining chains, I think the answer is no.


Our music and arts sectors are the ones which I believe have been most adversely affected.  Our musicians have had no gigs.  Our museums and theatres have been shut.  Big cinema and big venues have had some support but all the creative individuals who provide us with our weekend joy have been left largely unsupported.  Musicians and artists are almost exclusively self-employed and so enjoyed far less financial support than employees


One estimate is that COVID will have wiped off 10% of our GDP, comparable to WWII.  I think we are going to experience “long-COVID” getting our retail and leisure sectors back.  Everyone I have spoken to, electronically of course, confirms what they miss most (after hugs) are: music, socialising with friends, restaurants, pubs, museums, festivals and shopping and so I am sure COVID will not kill off retail and leisure.  The high street  is no Buggles’ “Radio Star”, but it will need to be more responsive  to draw us out of our online comfort.


It will need to be exciting and ever changing; perhaps much shorter leases with turnover rents to share in the risk and big private equity  backed chains may be a thing of the past.  We will need to race out and support the arts and thank goodness they ignored the calls to retrain as a van driver so that we again “throw shapes” and sing along to live music.  I feel we need a touch of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” to kick out the effects of COVID, along with a beer or two perhaps.



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