Relax the rules to let shops and bars make the most of this summer

Chief Executive Jace Tyrrell in The Times Red Box

Earlier this week, non-essential retail outlets reopened across the UK. It had been 12 long weeks since we last opened our doors to the public. That’s three months with no sales and no income for high street stores. Protecting public health must be a priority, but we have to understand just what the Covid-19 pandemic means for the retail sector and its contribution to jobs, taxes and economic growth.

Shopping is a key driver of Britain’s economic prosperity, generating five per cent of our country’s GDP[1]. In London’s West End, that magic mix of world-renowned retail, entertainment and commerce, contribute more to the national economy than does the City of London. Our love affair with shopping has created globally iconic high streets and brands, and as the UK’s largest private sector employer, it helped support 2.9 million jobs.

And the world loves shopping in Britain. In normal times tourists flock to our shores and spend billions in our stores every year. As we seek to define a new normal post COVID-19 we cannot neglect these overseas customers. 95 per cent of overseas visitors come to the UK for 14 days or less, usually planning their trips months in advance. Lockdown has already lost us a substantial portion of their £22 billion annual spend.

Their likelihood of returning to our shores and stores is now under threat from mixed messages and self-inflicted wounds. These undermine all the hard work that has gone into ensuring a safe and sustainable re-opening of our national and international high streets. We need to be looking to the long-term, encouraging visitors with incentives such as tax-free shopping, not with extra barriers such as a 14-day quarantine for international visitors or restrictive trading laws.

What the Government needs to do to boost our economy is to unleash those parts of our retailers’ creative entrepreneurial spirits that are being held back by unnecessary regulation.

In the short-term let’s have that big summer boost. A short, temporary relaxation of some planning and licencing regulations would allow bars, restaurants and shops to make better use of indoor and outdoor space throughout the summer to accommodate social distancing and give town centres that buzz they need to kickstart their local economies. It’s been reported that such measures are being discussed, but let’s make sure it’s fast tracked to give leisure businesses some reassurance ahead of reopening.

Amending social distancing from two meters to one, as the WHO recommended and the standard that most countries have adopted, would help our retail, hospitality and cultural businesses to operate without making a loss. It moves leisure businesses up from 30% occupancy to 70%. That makes the difference between loss and break even.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Government is considering relaxing Sunday Trading laws in order to stimulate the economy. This is precisely the kind of practical stimulus that we need if we are to successfully reopen our shops, recover in the coming months and return to prosperity. Just allowing stores in London’s two International centres of the West End and Knightsbridge to stay open until eight on a Sunday, as we are every other day of the week, would generate over £260 million in additional sales and create more than 2,000 new jobs.

And extending tax free shopping to visitors from the European Union, which is possible after we leave, would add over £1.4 billion of additional UK retail sales every year and be a real boost to our tourism industry.

It is right that we are debating this now – making fundamental changes that affect the lives of the British people is worthy of careful and considered debate. Monday gave us a chance to show the world how to safely re-open our high streets in a way that promotes both immediate sales and a sustainable footfall of first local and then overseas visitors. Public safety must remain our first concern, but so must public trust. We have the chance to prove to visitors and local communities that our shops can serve in safety. Now is not the time for mixed messages, it is time for clarity on how the UK’s retail sector will bring trade back to our shores and stores.

Jace Tyrrell, Chief Executive

New West End Company

Thu 18 June 2020