Businesses working within our retail and hospitality sector may have read in recent days news of a new report issued by the Centre for Cities organisation in which it highlighted the impact COVID-19 has had on city and town centres.
Sadly, the Cities Outlook 2022 report stated that Oxford has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, suggesting that the number of empty storefronts in the city centre increased by around 8.4% since March 2020.
The report believes that the Government’s Coronavirus support for associated high street sectors successfully stalled the decline of many, but it may have been less effective in economically stronger places – such as Oxfordshire – due to higher rents and a lack of custom from office workers.
More positively, the report adds that, while stronger city centres have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, locations like Oxford (given its relative economic strength) means that as restrictions end and footfall returns, they will likely recover quickly.
Of course – as a city that has historically benefited from its global appeal and student-heavy population – the pandemic was always likely to have a particularly detrimental effect on the high street. But it’s important that we embrace a ‘glass half-full’ approach to COVID-19 recovery and recognise the report’s belief that our economy can bounce back and at pace.
As is the case with almost all sectors, support is needed to help speed-up the recovery. Already, organisations including OxLEP – as part of a ‘system-wide’ response – have and continue to develop schemes and secure investment to help this recovery.
Working with Oxford City Council and Makespace Oxford, we secured £1.9m of government funding via the Getting Building Fund to support the revitalisation of vacant shops across Oxfordshire.
The ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’ project is seeing vacant retail units in high streets transformed into independent shops, cultural venues, creative studios and co-working space. The scheme is providing affordable premises to accommodate more than 100 organisations, which will create or secure at least 300 jobs across Oxfordshire.
In addition, a significant proportion of recipients to benefit from last year’s £2.15m Business Investment Fund (delivered by OxLEP Business) operated within our visitor economy, whilst 12 months ago, we secured investment for a multi-million-pound project – dubbed the ‘Entrepreneurship Hub’ – that will see substantial space across premises on Oxford’s George Street and Cave Street, refurbished and redeveloped to support an evolving high street.
The 16,800 sq. ft. workspace will help to meet the needs of digital, creative and social enterprises and will support 162 jobs and 36 businesses by 2025.
As the Local Enterprise Partnership for Oxfordshire, it’s really important to emphasise and reiterate that we and partner organisations recognise the challenge and are determined to breathe new life into our high streets.
Oxfordshire has a proud and successful history across retail and hospitality. From new, recent additions like Westgate Oxford and the evolvement of Bicester Village to more historical locations like the Covered Market. These locations and similar places across the county are the ‘cogs’ to our local economy and once these start to build momentum, confidence begins to grow.
Moving forward, initiatives that aim to improve business competitiveness and COVID resilience, as well as helping to rebuild the market share and confidence of Oxfordshire as a COVID safe destination, will undoubtedly be key.
We plan to update businesses on this very soon.
Clearly, the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a long time yet, but it’s important for those businesses operating in this space to know that organisations like OxLEP continue to recognise both the short-term and long-term challenges the sector will face, but that – across the ‘Oxfordshire family’ – we remain determined to help create opportunities moving forward.
Chief Executive – OxLEP