Covid: Scottish Government must launch a 'Save the high street’ fund – Richard Leonard

The dystopian scenes on our empty city and town streets at the start of the Covid outbreak this spring will long linger in the memory.

High streets, such as this one in Kirkcaldy, have been struggling amid the Covid outbreak (Picture: Allan Crow)
High streets, such as this one in Kirkcaldy, have been struggling amid the Covid outbreak (Picture: Allan Crow)

As we live through a second surge of this pernicious disease and face more tragic deaths and suffering, the collective shock of these haunting images will increasingly come back into focus.

For now at least, Scotland’s city and town streets are not deserted, despite the alarming increase in infections and the introduction of lockdown measures for the hospitality sector.

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However, fears will doubtless mount in the days ahead of a return to those scenes and events, when life on the Scottish high street juddered to a halt back in late March and early April.

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Call to back Scots high streets to ensure survival

Back in the spring, the weeks of deserted high streets soon turned into months, with grim consequences for many workers and businesses.

With Christmas just over two months away, we are entering what would normally be the start of the festive shopping season. But this year those working in the high street will be increasingly fearful of a shutdown during their busiest time of the year.

Relentless battering of retail

Taken together, this all poses a grave and existential danger for what has always been a major backbone of the Scottish economy and community life.

It goes without saying that, for all of us, the human loss that has hit families and communities across the country in the pandemic is what burns most deeply.

But the very beating heart of these communities, the high street, where so many people work and shop for life’s essentials, has taken a relentless battering during these last seven months of the pandemic.

More hard times clearly lie ahead, with devastating job losses and the likelihood of more businesses going to the wall this winter, alongside the very real threat to public health and human life.

Walking through Scottish city and town centres, high streets and shopping precincts, the scars from the first wave of Covid are palpable.

On every corner and every street ‘to let’ and ‘for sale’ signs are up.

One Friday afternoon last year, I was invited along to the Renfrewshire Food Bank which is run out of the Central Baptist Church Hall in Paisley. It is a two-minute walk from the town centre where shop after shop is lying empty. The food bank was bustling. There is no shortage of demand in our communities, there is a shortage of income to spend.

It is against a backdrop of austerity and so rising poverty and inequality that we have seen an economic downturn in our town and city centres. Along with digitalisation and the increasing might of the internet sales giant Amazon, the high street has taken a massive hit over many years.

Dire predictions for future

But the Covid pandemic has unleashed a threat to the very existence of the high street and the traditional Scottish shopping centre.

The dramatic rise in people working from home during the pandemic, has seen companies downsize or close their office space, with many never to return again, leaving behind empty premises and a gaping hole in our streets.

The shop workers union Usdaw told me last week of big retailers cutting hours, closing shops and making workers redundant. They are warning of a devastating impact on the high street when the furlough scheme ends in two weeks’ time.

The latest Covid surge and associated lockdown of much of our hospitality sector also makes the permanent closure of more bars and restaurants inevitable.

Stephen Montgomery, spokesperson for the Scottish Hospitality Group, issued a stark warning that the lockdown measures will be catastrophic for the sector, forecasting that Nicola Sturgeon “has effectively signed a death sentence for many businesses across the Scottish hospitality industry”.

All these crises spell potential economic ruin, not just for retail in the big city centres like Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but in communities the length and breadth of Scotland.

The loss of once-thriving stores, leaving boarded-up and empty properties in their wake, could turn whole communities into ghost towns.

So unless there is urgent action from the Scottish Government, the high street and traditional shopping centres, which represent a large chunk of our service economy, could be lost forever.

Publicity stunts don’t help

The Scottish Government has been talking of bringing together town centre stakeholders including trade unions since the spring. But it has never happened.

My friends in local government warn that existing town centre regeneration funds are not big enough or long term enough.

The announcement of a “Scotland Loves Local” fund at the weekend… with a total budget of £1 million feels more like a publicity stunt than a serious intervention.

So the Scottish Government must use its next budget to launch a ‘Save the Scottish high street’ fund, to offer substantial financial support to communities hit with largescale shops closures and left with empty properties during Covid.

This could take the form of finance for community buyouts of empty premises or grants for ailing stores that are on the verge of closure.

A register of landlords of empty shops and properties should be launched and there should be a revaluation of business rates for firms experiencing hardship and to help new start-ups.

Free bus travel and parking for shoppers could also boost numbers.

But we should also look to new investment in town centre housing and living accommodation so that our towns are for people again.

Covid has meant the loss of so much real human contact, something that has sadly often been necessary for public health reasons.

But we must not allow the high street to disappear, particularly during an age when loneliness and isolation are such serious and growing problems.

The Scottish Government must act now save our high street by launching a ‘Save the Scottish high street’ fund. If it does so, it will have the support of the Scottish Labour Party.

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