Undoubtedly one of the worse hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the high street, as seen in the recent collapses of Debenhams and Arcadia, both of which operate stores in Coventry.
Though high street retail had already been under pressure from the rise in online shopping and increasing unit vacancies as businesses move to retail parks, the situation has been exacerbated by restrictive measures meant to reduce transmission of the virus.
The Local Data Company reported in July that 12.4 per cent of retail sites on high streets in UK were vacant in the second quarter of 2020, up slightly from the previous quarter and in line with the overall trend across the retail sector.
In light of this, on Thursday afternoon MPs held a debate in the House of Commons on the future of the high street, with Coventry MPs Taiwo Owatemi and Zarah Sultana in attendance.
Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West, shared the concern of many local people by highlighting the discrepancy of Tier 3 measures being imposed on Coventry businesses after weeks of declining transmission rates, while places such as London, where rates have risen steadily for weeks, were placed into Tier 2.
Owatemi firmly told her colleagues that “Coventry’s high street matters just as much as Oxford Street” and called for better assessment when imposing measures, rather than “the last-minute, non-uniform way they have done it so far.”
The MP praised Coventry’s ability in recent years to respond to changing retail habits, with the city centre opening more museums, restaurants and other businesses as much traditional retail transitioned to online sales.
Speaking on a specific case, Owatemi mentioned Coventry’s soon-to-be landmark Telegraph Hotel, which was set to open in November, but has been forced to delay and cancel hundreds of reservations over Christmas.
Now facing a future of uncertainty around COVID-19 guidelines and “unable to access Covid funds”, the business is “suffering.”
Owatemi insisted, “We must do what we can to support [businesses] and not hang them out to dry.”
Immediately after, Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South, spoke to the “totally inadequate” financial support for businesses in Tier 3.
Sultana explained that the reason she voted against the Government’s tiered system in Parliament a few weeks ago was because of the struggles of “shops, pubs and restaurants under tier 3 restrictions.”
In her speech, the MP highlighted figures from Usdaw, the trade union for retail workers, that 200,000 retail jobs have been lost in 2020 so far.
According to the Office for National Statistics, high street employment represents around 14 per cent of all employment, including in retail, hospitality and other industries.
Sultana also slammed “mega-corporations” like Amazon for not “playing by the rules”, saying this hurts small businesses and our high streets. She drew attention to Amazon’s “legendary” tax dodging and its employment practices – she said “it is time Amazon paid its fair share of tax, respected workers’ rights and paid a fair wage.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has previously responded to such claims by saying he is “very proud” of the company’s working conditions and that wages are at a “high range of any comparable work.”
Speaking after her contribution in the House of Commons, Sultana said: “For the vast majority of people, this pandemic has been utter misery. It has meant loneliness, hardship and bereavement. The current support for businesses and people in tier 3 areas like Coventry are totally inadequate.”