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Lockdown ‘fast-forwarding’ high street decline with thousands of jobs at risk

PUBLISHED: 16:11 21 April 2020 | UPDATED: 16:11 21 April 2020

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Norwich Castle Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Norwich Castle Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

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The shops and restaurants that make up our fine city have been dealt a blow during lockdown – with an estimated 70pc closing completely.

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Lady wearing face mask outside the Royal Arcade Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Lady wearing face mask outside the Royal Arcade Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

And now an industry expert has warned that many of the businesses which make up Norwich’s rich DNA may not survive to the end of the year.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers have been dealt the heaviest blow by the coronavirus crisis but were already weakened by a steady decline in recent years.

MORE: Cath Kidston to close down stores permanently with loss of 900 jobs

Norwich city centre during the Covid-19 lockdown. John Lewis and empty streets. Picture: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich city centre during the Covid-19 lockdown. John Lewis and empty streets. Picture: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Professor Joshua Bamfield is the director of the Centre for Retail Research based in Norwich’s Rose Lane. He believes his predictions are not pessimistic but a sad reality.

The research centre has previously predicted 20,620 sites nationally will close in 2020 – with a loss of almost 236,000 jobs.

He highlighted that the high street was already wobbling before the coronavirus crisis with restaurant chains including Jamie Oliver’s and Carluccio’s collapsing into administration.

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. London street empty. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. London street empty. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Prof Bamfield said: “What lockdown has done is essentially hit the fast-forward button. What we would have seen in a couple of years time we will see much sooner for a number of reasons.

“The first is that the high street was already in trouble, so it was in a weaker position to begin with. The second is that the public will be nervous after this. After the initial flurry, there will still be a level of uncertainty about income and the future.”

This spells trouble for high street stalwarts like John Lewis which is already struggling to offset its store closures with online sales.

In a trading update posted this week, John Lewis revealed its total sales tumbled 17pc in the weeks since March 15 – and said in the worst case this could plunge to 35%.

Elsewhere Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston have already collapsed blaming the coronavirus.

The former, which fell into administration on May 17, had been struggling for a period of time.

The fashion and homewares chain – which had sites in London Street and the Eaton Centre - had been in talks with stakeholders over refinancing but it said its “revised cash flow forecasts and increased uncertainty” mean it will not be able to secure these funds in sufficient time.

Meanwhile Cath Kidston, which has an outlet in Castle Street, announced this week it would not be reopening after the lockdown.

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The news came after the company’s owners secured a deal to buy back its brand and online operations following its fall into administration.

“One thing that may come out of this is reduced rents,” said Prof Bamfield. “You just have to look at what happened with House of Fraser and Intu. That company is already seen as vulnerable and it’s the biggest retail landlord in the country. If landlords want to see their shops occupied they’re going to have to take a look at the level of income they previously expected and make a decision.”

MORE: Back in business: Ice cream firm launches lockdown tubs delivered to your door

House of Fraser had been set to close in Norwich’s Chapelfield in February 2019, but was rescued in January after last-minute talks.

Norwich may have to look to neighbouring high streets for inspiration.

Jonathan Newman is town centre manager at the Great Yarmouth Town Centre Partnership, and said it was “no secret” that the seaside resort had struggled with occupation.

He said: “There’s no crystal ball we can look into and see what our high street is going to look like in 12 months time.

“I suspect that the hospitality industry will suffer because early indications are that they won’t be able to reopen for months. With that in mind I think we’ll see more of a community aspect brought into our high street – perhaps an education hub and other facilities for the public as a whole.”

He added: “What is really important to state at this point is that there is an extraordinary amount of government support to be had. Great Yarmouth Borough Council has paid out nearly £20million to business during lockdown but I believe there is still 30% or 40% who are eligible and haven’t applied. I would definitely urge businesses to make the most of this support when they can.”


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