To Boris Johnson’s government, our vanishing high streets are simply a parallel universe

Our politicians have not yet woken up to the mass job losses and decline of town centres that the pandemic has accelerated.

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In the UK, the coronavirus crisis has been punctuated by a grim roll call of high street staples laying off jobs and closing branches.

Boots will be cutting 4,000 jobs (7 per cent of its workforce) and closing 48 optician stores; John Lewis has announced 1,300 jobs are at risk as it closes eight stores; Burger King may shut up to 10 per cent of its UK restaurants, risking 1,600 job losses; Pret A Manger will cut 1,000 jobs and close 30 branches; Casual Dining Group, owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia, will cut 1,900 jobs; TM Lewin will cut 600 jobs as it goes online only; SSP (which runs Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and Camden Food Co) has announced up to 5,000 job cuts; and the shopping centre giant Intu went into administration in June.

High streets and retail centres are one of the biggest casualties of coronavirus, with forced closures during the strict period of lockdown, and the ensuing drop in footfall and public transport use in town and city centres.

According to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by polling company Redfield & Wilton Strategies, only 15 per cent of respondents went to the pub, 10 per cent ate at a restaurant, and 12 per cent went to have their hair cut during the “Super Saturday” weekend of reopening in England on 4 July.

But it is also true that bricks-and-mortar retail was in trouble before the pandemic hit. John Lewis and Boots were already planning to make changes because of financial challenges, after all.

Under pressure from online competitors, changing consumer habits and the rise in rents and business rates, Britain’s high streets have long been in decline. It would take too long to list all the household names that have gone bust over the past five years. The British Retail Consortium declared 2019 Britain’s worst ever year for retail.

This government appears to be operating in a parallel universe to the devastation on the British high street.

First, the job losses. Throughout the crisis, despite the rocketing number of Universal Credit claimants, the government has made little attempt to make the welfare system permanently more generous or more easily accessible. Benefit sanctions have returned, and claimants must still wait five weeks for their first payment. The National Audit Office has revealed today that more than half of households making a new claim need an upfront loan to tide them through that penniless period.

Rishi Sunak announced £1bn this week to double the number of work coaches in Jobcentres (one in ten of which have already been closed over the past decade) and a vague promise to “support the unemployed”. But there is no imminent plan to reform benefits payments to tackle the mass unemployment that job cuts in sectors including retail, hospitality and entertainment show is taking place.

The shiniest gesture from Sunak’s mini-budget this week was an offer to stump up for half-price meals out throughout August from Monday to Wednesday. It is hard to imagine how this attempt to coax demand for a sector that was already shedding jobs and hours when the pandemic hit could ever be anything other than a temporary measure.

Simultaneously, local authorities are facing bankruptcy partly because of their missing revenue from the pause on business rates – introduced in March in an attempt to help businesses survive lockdown.

All this suggests a government in denial about a fraying part of our economic and social fabric. As the former head of Wickes and Iceland Bill Grimsey wrote in the New Statesman last week, “We have to stop keeping a failed model on life support and embrace change.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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