York leading the way for high streets


In the ever increasingly hostile environment of high street retail, Business corespondent James Abbott looks at York high street's innovative regeneration project.

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Image by Laura Reid

By James Fraser-Abbott

Ever since the reopening of non-essential shops and restaurants post-lockdown, it has been estimated by the York Press that on average, every thirty-seven hours in York city centre a store or restaurant has had to close its doors for the very last time. A statement has been released that seventeen shops and restaurants have had to close permanently so far, these being the “Brigantes pub, True Story cafe, Knit & Stitch shop, Accessorize, Carluccio’s, Boots Coppergate, Patisserie Valerie Coppergate, TM Lewin, Warehouse, Random Encounter, Pop Culture Café and two branches of Subway.”

While it may appear that our high street stores are doomed to become soulless vestiges of life known prior to the pandemic, there is still hope for local businesses, to thrive and reimagine our shopping experiences post-covid. Due to the continual punitive effects of the city centre's rents and rates, what is being witnessed is a huge surge of interest by local business leaders to take up small and medium sized units. This is demonstrable by the actions of large multinational sports direct, moving 4 of their own businesses into Coney streets abandoned BHS, which has remained vacant since 2016. Inside will be located subsidiary stores, like Evans Cycles, luxury clothing brand Flannel’s, USC and a new sport direct branch. What this indicates is a swarm of opportunities, smaller, but many more diverse businesses flocking to take their place inside these highstreet relics.

Creative Space, an economic consultancy firm who have been drafted by York city council to write up a review on how to address the effects of the pandemic, have often made reference to the gawking success of the Spark Shipping container retail development. What was originally designed as a temporary business site to reinvigorate the local area, has far surpassed the expectations of council officials and has become a mainstay tourist attraction and student hotspot. From the report, it has been strongly encouraged that York City council open up more of its own public spaces that are not is use to facilitate the operation of pop-up safe-distance restaurants and beverage distributors. The report has also gone as far to say that the council should engage in talks with private landlords, enticing them to open up to the idea of temporary use while the property remains vacant of a more permanent tenant. The idea behind this being that there is a guarantee of diversity of experiences and shops provided, affording local businesses leaders to trial new ventures and hopefully prop them up into becoming thriving independents. It has been heavily suggested by the agency that temporary occupancy can provide opportunities now only to retail and hospitality sector, but afford ample space for the growth of arts and cultural organisations, and even office space for new start-up enterprises.

This sentiment has been echoed by York city councillor, Andrew Waller, calling on the council to utilise and adapt empty council land for the use of pop-up stores, easing accessibility so that the time taken for businesses to swap around is reduced. The aim of this would be also to guarantee pop-up business a quick turnover of profits, avoiding lengthy set-up costs. From the talks so far it isn't difficult to envisage a return to the by gone days of Yore, market stalls hoisted betwixt the narrow streets of ancient York, trading, haggling and bartering as our Roman, viking and Victorian inhabitants once did. Hope is anew for the revival of York's reputable independent and local trade.

Cllr Waller is adamant that York is one of few cities in the country that is best and uniquely equipped to bounce back against the oncoming economic recession. As a tourist hotspot, with many more holiday makers since the drive for British citizens to staycate, York is almost guaranteed to the better than most Northern cities. Since the city had pledged to become the UK’s first car free city centre, pedestrianisation initiatives have expanded the scope of small market businesses to capture the attention of increasing foot traffic. It is safe to say, that York’s future is not too bleak, if anything there is a groundswell of excitement over the opportunities granted to local businesses. No time is better to fight back against the creeping advance of large multinationals and reclaim Yorks walls for new era, a new highstreet.