Well, that lockdown certainly ended with a bang. On the eve of the grand reopening of ‘non-essential’ stores, Philip Green’s Arcadia empire came tumbling down, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t just drag Debenhams down with it.
The colossal job losses and potential death of some of the high street’s most recognisable and loved staples – I spent three years working at the flagship Oxford Street Topshop and it was a fashion Mecca for tourists and Londoners alike – are bad enough. But it is the sheer volume of empty retail space they leave behind that really worries me. According to the Local Data Company, Debenhams alone has a physical footprint of a staggering 13.6m sq ft. What happens now to all that space? Have we gone past the point of no return? Is there really still a viable future for our high streets?
While the outlook is far from rosy, I don’t buy the whole retail apocalypse thing. I think we will see a radical reinvention of the high street with new mixed-use schemes breathing fresh life into what have become ghost towns. A blend of leisure, food and beverage and retail, with some flexible workspace and a sprinkle of resi on top, surely has to be the way forward. John Lewis certainly thinks so. It has started the ball rolling with plans to build rental homes at 20 of its sites. I’m intrigued to see what comes next as we move into 2021.
Another sector I’ll be monitoring closely to see how it reacts to the pandemic is student accommodation. After a tumultuous 2020 that saw occupancy down, international students unable to travel to the UK and many courses move online, the focus has shifted to whether a blend of mass testing, vaccines and a January surge of post-grad sign-ups could give the sector a much- needed shot in the arm of its own.
Opinions are divided as to what next year holds. CRM Students chief executive Stewart Moore says that worrying about whether the government will even allow students to physically return to university is “keeping him awake” at night, while student leasing research from JLL has found that one London operator currently has just 9% of its beds let for January.
Others are more optimistic. Student Roost chief executive Nathan Goddard told me that while it – along with everyone else – has seen cancellations, the business’s January sales far outstrip the deficit. And Knight Frank co-head of student property Merelina Sykes says that while the market’s income is inevitably down this year, investor appetite is holding up and we could be in for more big-ticket PBSA deals in 2021.
You’ll notice that this week’s issue is jam-packed with student accommodation content. That is because there is now less than a week to go until Property Week’s annual Student Accommodation Conference and Awards. The not-to-be missed virtual event on 9 December will include a chief executives panel debate on the market’s response to Covid-19 and a keynote address from former minister for universities Jo Johnson. Perhaps he will also be able to shed some light on what his brother has planned for students in the UK come the new year.
Whatever 2021 brings, we’re going to be stepping into a forever changed world. Whether it is a world with Topshop in it remains to be seen.