A year after the first lockdown began, Michael Wray, Chelmsford’s Business Improvement District manager is optimistic about the future of our city centre.
Q. Take us back to March 2020. What happened on the high street?
We had never planned for anything like this and to us, the pandemic almost hit overnight. Everything connected to Chelmsford For You was working very well and there was a noticeable increase in year-on-year footfall. Then we went into March and April last year and everything fell off a cliff.
We went from about 250,000 people a week in the high street to about 40,000. In the first lockdown there wasn’t very much open; through the other lockdowns and the other tier systems, some businesses like McDonald’s have stayed open and there has been some click and collect going on. But in lockdown one everything was shut. The speed at which is happened was so surprising – it was like a switch was flicked and everyone went home from work one day with a laptop under their arm and worked from home for a good few months after that.
Then we had the challenge of helping to open everything up again on 15 June 2020. That was hard because you can’t just say ‘open your restaurant tomorrow’ – there has to be food in stock and every restaurant in the country was trying to do this at exactly the same time. Some of the bars in Chelmsford have thrown gallons of beer down the sink because no one was there to buy it. When they were allowed to reopen, they didn’t know exactly how many people were going to come back.
Q. How has Chelmsford’s city centre been affected?
We’ve seen what’s happened to Debenhams and Topshop, but new shops and restaurants have also been opening during this time like new takeaways on Baddow Road and Refill Chelmsford, which has been establishing itself on Bond Street – so we’ve seen some positives too.
Chelmsford’s in a lucky position in its proximity to London and having a lot of commuters in its population. Imagine if fifty per cent of them don’t go back to their plush London offices at all or for just part of the week. If these people continue to work from home or use a shared space within the city centre, they may use our city shops and restaurants more than they did before. We don’t really know what the impact will be once commuter habits change – but this could benefit Chelmsford.
Q. What shape is Chelmsford in compared to other city centres?
Compared to some areas, we’re not doing badly. I speak to other BIDs all the time – we have a 50-BID call every other week – and some of the pain is a lot worse than ours. It’s a different experience altogether for some smaller towns. Their concerns are far greater than ours; some say 30% of their shops are empty already, even before dealing with the impact the pandemic might have on people coming back.
So, when you look at us, we’re still in a lucky position. People still want to open businesses here in Chelmsford and there are units still being taken and shops reopening.
Q. Which high street sector has been worst hit over the last year?
Hospitality. The tier system of last year didn’t affect shops in the same way that it did hospitality. Not only did these businesses go through the stop/start of being shut and open, but they had different restrictions placed on them at different times as well.
When we start to open up again after this latest lockdown, hospitality will be the hardest part of the city centre to get back to some sort of normality, I think. Pubs, bars and restaurants need more certainty – they can’t afford to throw any more beer down the sink – so they’ll be keeping a close eye on what happens over the next few weeks.
We’re working on an optimistic return from April 12 but it’s the hospitality sector that will need the most help. It’s really a double opening: April 12 is a ‘welcome back’ and 17 May is getting people back inside. We’re already working on plans for additional seating outside and opening up places like the bowl in Bond Street and other pockets of the city which can help get us through to the next stage (hopefully from 17 May).
Q. What trends should we be looking out for on the high street?
You’ll see some smart collaborations between people. We already have the Pop-Up Club in the city and there’ll be more of that. I think you’ll see landlords being as flexible as possible to put people into empty units.
Q. How many of these changes to the high street might be permanent?
I’m of the view that everything will change because the pandemic has accelerated online shopping – I think by about 10 or 15 years. We’ve had a whole year where people who were previously reluctant to engage have just had to do it.
Online shopping will take a slice off the high street and we don’t want to concede defeat just yet and say, ‘You win!’ to big online retailers – but we’re not stupid and so there’s going to have to be an element of change, although we shouldn’t underestimate how much people have missed doing things together.
I think when we reopen, we will see a return to the footfall we’re used to because people love a sense of community; they love getting out and seeing people and meeting for a coffee when they shop. But in the long term, we might have to accept that people may not shop in exactly the same way as before and evolve accordingly.
Keep up to date with high street reopenings
You can find all the latest information about what’s going on in the city centre as we make our way out of lockdown by visiting www.chelmsfordforyou.co.uk.
The photographs featured in this piece were submitted to the City Photo Competition 2020.