The past 12 months have been unimaginably difficult for the retail and hospitality sectors, including all of our businesses across the West End.
Since the initial national lockdown last March, non-essential retail has lost 145 days of trading, with devastating financial implications, unavoidable store closures and job losses. The latest lockdown means the vast majority of retail and hospitality businesses will continue to experience serious challenges right into the summer.
Yet despite these challenging circumstances, 2020 shouldn’t be a year to forget – the lessons we have learned will be vital in allowing us to bounce back strongly. Businesses have been adapting quickly to ever-changing restrictions and guidelines to give loyal customers the service they need in the best way they can. From this disruption and uncertainty comes opportunity, and we must use this period to build back better and futureproof the high street.
In the West End, we are working closely with Westminster City Council to kickstart the delivery of the £150m Oxford Street District transformation. This ambitious project will pave the way for a more sustainable district with a range of asset classes – from offices and hospitality to residential and culture – and will prepare the district for the opening of the Elizabeth Line, which will welcome 60 million more visitors each year.
The past year has shown that visitors will return. When retail was able to reopen in between lockdowns, the rise in footfall (a 136% week-on-week rise on the first weekend following the November lockdown) shows our customers’ eagerness to get back to the shops and enjoy the West End’s unique offerings. Such a show of support indicates that, when guidelines allow, the West End will be ready to welcome back our visitors with open arms.
In the short term, financial support and clear communication from the government is imperative to help businesses plan for the first half of the year and survive. For the West End to recover successfully and sustainably and return to prosperity, the government must address three key areas of concern: the eradication of tax-free shopping, business rates and Sunday trading.
A broken system
The pandemic has exposed how broken the business rates system is. West End businesses have seen trade plummet by 80%, while rates have risen by the same amount. The tax relief offered by government must be extended past April 2021 to give businesses a fighting chance.
In the longer term, reform of this antiquated tax will be fundamental to replacing the failed system with something that better reflects our increasingly digital economy.
The eradication of tax-free shopping is an own goal, deterring overseas travellers who would, in normal times, account for around a third of footfall and almost half of spending. Covid-19 has disguised the consequences of this move, but the implications will become clear when international tourism resumes later this year, with destinations such as Paris and Madrid welcoming the boost in trade at London’s expense.
The support businesses have received has gone a long way to ameliorating Covid-19’s immediate impacts, but much more can be done to boost long-term prospects. Simple, cost-free moves such as lifting archaic Sunday trading hours for international centres such as the West End would give more opportunity for trade. The government must give our members a fighting chance at recovery.
The West End has proven over its 300-year history that it is resilient. Its businesses simply need a bridge to when they can resume doing what they do best: delivering jobs and driving growth across the economy. We must act now to protect the UK’s leading shopping and leisure district and ensure that it bounces back stronger than ever, setting an example for high streets as we recover from this pandemic.
Jace Tyrrell is chief executive of New West End Company