Stuart Miller, Customer Director at Newcastle Building Society and Board Member of the High Streets Task Force looks at the impact of Covid on the region's high streets and the importance of community in the economic recovery.
Covid 19 has changed everyone’s shopping habits, is that it now for the high street as we knew it?
Habits have changed in many ways. For example the impact of Covid has seen many smaller towns benefit from people working from home. We’ve also seen many examples of place leaders transforming their towns, such as thriving Hawes in North Yorkshire where the local community now supports the running of many of its critical services. Here Newcastle Building Society collaborated with the Hawes community to introduce branch based financial services back in to the town through an innovative partnership. It’s key that towns must have a vision and a clear plan.
Towns can no longer rely solely on multiple retailers to maintain the health of the High street. Instead they need to redefine themselves, to create multi-functional centres that permit the introduction of new usage, and attract people for a number of reasons, focusing on elements that are unique to their town, such as certain historic features, or having a thriving arts movement.
Many have commented on the new sense of community Covid has brought. How do you think the business community can play a full role in making sure that continues?
Businesses only thrive if the communities in which they operate thrive. In my view community engagement cannot be an afterthought. It has to be something that is deeply embedded in to an organisation’s strategy and culture. Community is not just about giving funds to charities either. Of course it’s really vital that we all do what we can to support the great work that charities do and fill the gaps left by a lack of central funding, but it is a lot more than that.
For example, we are a passionate supporter of the Prince’s Trust, an organisation which focuses on helping young people gain the skills and confidence to enter the world of work. The funding we provide is of course a huge help, but we aim to provide more than that. We encourage our colleagues to support the programmes we sponsor, to use their own skills and experience to provide insight or mentoring to help those on the Prince’s Trust programmes. It was when we were able to offer full time apprenticeships to three Prince’s Trust young people over the past two years, that we felt we had really made a difference.
If you had an ask of Government, what would it be?
To consider the needs of the most vulnerable as we go through this awful pandemic. I’m very concerned that any future impacts to the economy will hit the young very hard in terms of their employment prospects, and at the same time the elderly now have severe restrictions on meeting up with friends and family. With mental health among the young and social isolation in the elderly becoming increasing problems, I would ask government to focus on the most vulnerable in our society and ensure they are doing everything they can to support them and those who work to help them.
What do you think are the main issues the Government’s Town Fund should address?
The towns fund has been introduced to drive the sustainable economic regeneration of towns. The challenges faced by towns vary, and local answers need to come from local people. Acknowledging a lack of capacity and in some cases a lack of specialist High Streets expertise in many towns, the High Streets Task Force was also introduced to provide valuable resources, expertise, and access to best practice that we are seeing emerging. COVID-19 has seen businesses, communities and place leaders adapt, form new partnerships, take action and make plans for a different kind of future for high streets and town centres.