Our town centres will thrive again but only if local businesses in the leisure, culture and retail sector embrace big data and digital
It is difficult to overstate the damage that has been done to our leisure, tourism and hospitality sector and the people who work in those businesses here in Yorkshire over the past ten months. Most businesses have recorded massive financial losses due to being forced to close. The majority now have huge debts to repay. Few have any cash reserves and many businesses have already gone out of existence through insolvency. Those that remain are having to manage a workforce that is largely on furlough and looking to get out of the sector as soon as possible.
For workers in the sector this has been an incredibly tough festive season, with many having to resort to food banks and other charities to keep a roof over their head. In October, I wrote about the experiences of a friend, Abigail, who works in a restaurant in Leeds. Having just about managed to make ends meet on a zero-hours contract and through lockdown in November, Abigail was distraught when she found out that Leeds would remain in Tier 3 lockdown throughout December.
And as the New Year starts, things look very bleak for Abigail and her boss Ed, who manages a number of sites throughout the North and East of England. As Ed explained to me, whilst the government employment support, ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, rates, rent and grant schemes have all helped, its inability to understand the science or follow the data has meant that the sector has been badly let down. This has been no more evident than in the past month, when a sector that is highly regulated, has invested heavily to ensure that it is covid safe and only accounts for about 3 percent of new infections, has been forced to close down whilst schools, workplaces and supermarkets have all remained open.
Ed has recently had to go through another round of staff redundancies as well as reducing staff hours and pay. And pretty soon his firm may have to close some more of their sites permanently, something they hadn’t expected to do given their healthy financial position.
All of this means that as we begin 2021, it is absolutely critical we have a plan that will ensure the sector can bounce back more strongly once enough people are vaccinated, to ensure that we are through the worst of the pandemic. The first part of that plan must involve working with the government to form a common understanding as to how and when the sector can safely reopen as early as possible in 2021.
Government announcements of changes to restrictions throughout the past ten months of the pandemic period have been very ‘last minute’ and often have felt muddled. They have created uncertainty and dented consumer confidence, often triggering redundancies or in some cases business closure. Businesses in this sector such as restaurants, bars and cultural venues are used to maintaining high levels of health and safety standards. With the most accurate and up-to-date science they can, and should, be trusted to operate safely and in the best interest of their staff and customers.
Secondly, local and regional governments need to play a part alongside the private sector in understanding, responding and adjusting to the underlying trends that are emerging across our Yorkshire towns and cities. At some stage, our commercial centres will start to welcome back office workers, but with the shift to online working models this is unlikely to be on the same scale as it was 12 months ago. These dynamics need to be fully understood and adjustments made, such as recategorising the rateable value of property in our commercial centres.
Lastly, much has been written and said about the longer-term effects of the pandemic, in terms of speeding up the move to on-demand online sales platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Deliveroo. Whilst these digital services can never replicate the social experience of meeting a friend for a spot of shopping, dining out in a restaurant or going to the cinema, our newfound habits might prove hard to break, especially as data suggests that those who can are choosing to move home to more rural areas.
In this context, the sector must adapt and innovate. Businesses must work together to ensure that central shopping districts are easily accessible online and that goods are available for click and collect or doorstep delivery. They must make the case to local authorities about the need to rebalance the allocation of land so that industry, including manufacturing and engineering, are located near to retail, leisure and hospitality developments.
And we must all dare to think about new opportunities to build on Yorkshire’s popularity as a destination for cycling, heritage and arts. This might include rebranding roads between Harrogate and Holmfirth to reflect the fact that they form part of the UK’s premier cycling route, or dedicating a portion of Batley, Dewsbury and Huddersfield town centres to celebrating the diversity and international reach of the communities that have emerged from its wool industry.
All three of these elements – understanding the data, making adjustments and adapting digital innovation – are critical to the future wellbeing of people in communities across Yorkshire. So, it is good news that Welcome to Yorkshire has taken on the role of establishing a taskforce for the tourism sector to deliver this programme of work. With sub-groups working on arts, culture and events, and with the hospitality and the retail sectors and a bi-partisan and multi-stakeholder group of participants on each, the taskforce has real potential. As a member of the group, I will certainly be doing my best to ensure that we embrace big data and digital innovation and to ensure that 2021 is a year of recovery for our Yorkshire communities.