2020 was a year like no other. The pandemic accelerated many structural changes that were already occurring across our cities. How we live, work and spend our time shifted – something that is now reflected in key trends across retail, offices, industrial and housing. As well as challenges, these trends present opportunities and new ways of thinking to better our economy, communities and the environment.
In the final instalment of our 2021 trends blogs, Liveable Exeter explores how the pandemic might have helped to shape the future of our city centre.
The collapse of three major high street chains in recent months has triggered fears for its future, and the recent news that the Debenhams store is closing for good, proves that Exeter is not immune to these changes. But high street closures and empty retail units were an increasingly familiar sight before 2020. The pandemic has served to compound the years of pressure that high streets have endured and accelerated the pace of change in aspects such as digital transformation.
So, what does the future hold for our city centre? And what can be done to ensure that Exeter remains resilient in the face of these challenges?
It’s important to understand why the UK high street has struggled in recent years. We often attribute it to online shopping and business rates, and while this may contribute, it is more complex than that. One reason high streets are struggling is because of the weaknesses of the broader city centre economy. Jobs are needed in the city centre – quite simply, those high streets depend upon workers spending money.
Frances Tanner from SetSquared, a partnership between the University of Exeter and business, told us: “Exeter is at the heart of a thriving innovation ecosystem. But businesses and organisations need to look at salary-matching with other regions, like the south east, if we’re going to attract relocators.”
However, Exeter has always wanted to ensure that people want to stay here, offering them well paid jobs that will continue to exist for years to come, as well as attracting those who move here from other cities, as Karime Hassan, Chief Executive and Growth Director at Exeter City Council, says: “We need to take a holistic view of what makes places successful. For our residents, our businesses, our students and our visitors, we want the city to be a vibrant destination with a broad mix of places to live, work, socialise, visit, study and shop.
“We need to encourage more people into Exeter, when we can again, by making the city centre space more attractive to families; providing more for them to do, making the best of what we produce locally and improving the range of experiences to increase dwell time. These actions put clean and sustainable growth at their core.”
Ann Hunter from InExeter (Exeter’s Business Improvement District) agrees: “We often talk about footfall when looking at how well our high streets are performing. But a better assessment is to look at dwell time and experience. How long are people spending in the city centre and what are they doing? As we look to support high street recovery, I think it’s going to be crucial to also consider how we’re investing in clean, green, space and leisure and cultural opportunities to enable people to participate in activity and social experiences. Examples of this might be investment in more markets, workshops in businesses or cultural activations and street art. “Our cities need to be mixed use hubs which are inviting spaces to enjoy which then encourage spend in business.”
That Exeter is noted as one of the four strongest economies in the UK in a recent report by Centre for Cities is undoubtedly positive for the city. However, other forecasts are less positive and Exeter, like many other places in the UK, has had its share of pandemic problems.
However, the city does have opportunities and, as local businesswoman and Liveable Exeter board member, Kalkidan Legesse, tells us, the spirit of collaboration in Exeter is driving positive innovation. She says: “I think there’s a lot of positivity amongst the business community in Exeter, people want to see each other do well which results in mutual support and synergy. I believe this has a lot to do with Exeter as a place. It’s a beautiful city, it’s green and this nurtures inspiration and creativity which in turn supports the want to innovate.”
And there’s certainly been a lot of innovation in Exeter as a result of businesses adapting to lockdown, with many of them taking their services online. Consumers in Exeter have responded and a recent report by Exeter City Council showed that online shopping now makes up 31% of sales, and online sales are 75% higher than they were last year. This certainly seems to indicate a potential growth area for the city and an opportunity to upskill to support the city’s carbon neutral goals.
The nature of lockdown has also resulted in us staying closer to home, avoiding crowds and public transport and this is encouraging people to shop and spend their leisure time nearby – to the benefit of the local economy. This may be a temporary phenomenon, driven by short term COVID-19-related restrictions. However, there are reasons to think it might signal something more significant. A recent survey by South West Mutual found that 57% of people in the south west would like to shop more locally as a result of the pandemic. And 47% want to shop more ethically.
Indeed, in a recent interview with The Guardian, retail consultant Mary Portas talks about ‘the kindness economy’. She says: “We’re looking at a whole new generation who aren’t going to support businesses who don’t prioritise people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: there is a new value system at play.”
Cities bring people together and Exeter is no different in its need to adapt to constant change in order to continue to do that. But if bricks-and-mortar stores are to survive and cities are to continue to be vibrant economic hubs, they need to provide something beyond the purely transactional – excellent service that can’t be replicated online, spaces for creativity and connection, expert knowledge, a dynamic mix of uses or a space where people are able to get together.
In Exeter, that kind of experience is in the works, with plans laid out for future schemes such as the City Point scheme, a £300 million redevelopment plan for the city centre, which will bring in new uses alongside new employment opportunities, and also through other interventions which it is hoped could boost footfall and enhance the city centre environment.
The Liveable Exeter vision puts human beings at the centre of all development, understanding and valuing that for Exeter to change positively, it must meet the needs of people now, as well as in the future. Establishing linked communities, sustainable travel and good quality homes and green spaces is all part of this vision, but ensuring the survival of a thriving business, retail and hospitality hub is also hugely important.
For the economy in Exeter to thrive, people, their needs for a good life and their future generations must continue to be a priority for us all.