I really enjoy shopping, but the best trips are those where you can combine browsing your favourite store in the high street, while having some leisure time too. Whether it be a pub, betting shop, café or even a swim, that mix of retail and leisure is what makes our high streets work.
So the inquiry by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee into supporting our high streets after Covid 19 (which closes to submissions today), is vital. High streets, in my view, will only survive through a mixture of central Government support and intervention and local leadership.
At the Betting and Gaming Council, much of our work this year has been dealing with the effects on our members of the Covid-19 lockdown. As we all know, our high streets were forced to close for three months as part of the national effort to slow the spread of the virus.
I’m glad to say that betting shops and casinos across the UK have now opened their doors again, but the latest footfall data shows that visitors to our main shopping thoroughfares are still less than a quarter of pre-pandemic levels.
With the UK economy officially in recession, it is absolutely vital that our politicians leave no stone unturned in their attempts to save the high street, because they are vital community hubs as well as major contributors to the Treasury.
We have some 6,900 betting shops across the UK employing around 40,000 people, each of them paying taxes to fund the public services on which we all rely. Research undertaken before Covid struck found that 82 per cent of betting shop customers visited one at least once a week, and that 89 percent of those customers went on to visit other shops on the high street.
That is real money going into the pockets of shopkeepers the length breadth of the country, helping to build up and maintain local economies. At a time of national crisis, their contribution is more important than ever.
For five years, I was a member of the Government’s High Streets Forum, which looked at how to revive high streets throughout the UK. The Great British High Street competition showed how communities with the right leadership really could make a difference to the number of visitors and how long they spent there.
Undoubtedly, the Select Committee inquiry will need to look at business rates, which have been due for fundamental review for some years. This summer has also seen an important debate on high rents and intractable landlords, which is another area the committee members should look at.
But everyone has a role to play in this. Our casinos – which employ 14,000 people and paid £1.3bn in tax in the last three years – opened in mid-August, but with no international visitors, trading has been slow. Nightclubs and many music venues remain closed. So not only will central government have to think about what help they can still offer, local communities and local government will need to do so too. For local authorities, it will be reaching out to those in their communities who have the skills and the energy to bring together retailers and operators to make changes to the high street. Because if nothing happens, many leisure businesses will not survive this autumn and our high streets will become ghost towns.
The committee’s recommendations need to be hard hitting and courageous. When hospitality, leisure and tourism – including our betting shops and casinos – make such a vital contribution to the UK economy, their needs must be at the forefront of our economic recovery.
Brigid Simmonds OBE is Chairman of the Betting and Gaming Council