Pandemic disruption poses threat to 400,000 retail jobs

Changes in working patterns as a result of Covid could result in over 400,000 job losses on the high street, as workers continue to work from home at least part of the week, according to research by KPMG

Its report on 109 cities and towns across England, found that alongside the reduction in commuter footfall, the accelerated shift to online shopping is exacerbating the vacuum in city and town centres, with less people calling in to shop.

According to KPMG analysis, high streets could lose between 20%-40% of their retail offerings as a result, affecting between 1%-5% of the local workforce and the potential loss of over 400,000 jobs. The impact of more employees continuing to work from home varies across cities and towns.

The loss of commuter flow in England could range from over a tenth to under a third of commuter footfall seen pre-Covid. Hemel Hempstead and Bracknell, for example, are set to see up to 27.4% of office work performed from home.

Looking at existing offerings across sports facilities, culture and recreation assets and hospitality venues, the report also shows larger cities enjoy a clear advantage in their ability to provide a large and varied cultural offering to visitors. In comparison, smaller towns score less strongly and tend to focus on fewer types of attractions.

Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, said: ‘As people travel less for work or to shop, town and city centres will need alternative offerings to fill vacant space and to attract people to the area as we hopefully leave the pandemic behind sometime this year.

‘High streets will need to be reimagined as cultural and recreational hubs that will act as magnets for businesses and jobs able to transform less prosperous areas.’

The report calculated an index of vulnerability for towns and cities in England based on assessment of the impact of home working and loss of retail outlets, combined with the strength of current cultural assets.

The list is topped by cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, which benefit from a strong cultural offering that partially compensates for the loss in commuter footfall and retail outlets on the high street.

On the other end of the scale, places like Warrington and Basingstoke are hit relatively hard by the loss of commuter footfall and retail offering, while having a more limited cultural offering to attract people to their centres.

The size of London makes it a relative outlier as it does not have a single contiguous city centre in a traditional sense. The score for London combines the relatively diverse character of areas such as Canary Wharf focussing on office space and the West End of London with a large endowment of cultural amenities. In this light it is unlikely that the strength of cultural amenities on offer in one part of the city can compensate for the loss of commuter footfall in a different part, which could test the resilience of some parts of London.

Chris Hearld, head of regions at KPMG UK, said: ‘As we leave the pandemic behind, towns and cities across the UK will need help and space to rethink the purpose of their centres. 

‘Fostering collaboration between businesses and local policymakers can help rethink the journey to work with a focus on lower carbon, more customer-orientated and better-connected transport networks, and it will be important to prioritise investment in high-speed broadband and 5G connectivity.’

Pat Sweet |Reporter, Accountancy Daily [2010-2021]

Pat Sweet was the former online reporter at Accountancy Daily and contributor to the monthly Accountancy magazine, pub...

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