Luton well placed for recovery after pandemic, report reveals

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'There definitely feels like there is renewed resilience and strength'

Luton is bouncing back after the pandemic, as figures show the town centre coped better than many of its neighbours during the lockdowns.

A new Centre for Cities report reveals Luton lost 26 weeks of sales between the first lockdown and Omicron's onset (39th out of 62 areas studied nationally). Worst hit in the east of England was central Cambridge which lost 36 weeks of sales. Norwich and Peterborough were also hard hit.

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The Cities Outlook 2022 – Centre for Cities’ annual economic assessment of the UK’s largest urban areas showed lost sales were linked to an increase in business closures. Out of 52 city and town centres studied, Luton came 46th nationally for closures with just a 0.5% increase in vacancy rates.

The revitalisation of Bute Street is part of Luton Council's 2040 projectThe revitalisation of Bute Street is part of Luton Council's 2040 project
The revitalisation of Bute Street is part of Luton Council's 2040 project

Julia Horsman, Luton BID Manager said: “There is no denying that it has been a very challenging few years for high streets – not just in Luton but UK-wide. There is however a positive vibe emerging from the many business owners and workers we speak to, with lots of things to look forward to.

“As a BID we are still very much focused on supporting local businesses, and working with the council and other key partners to drive people into the town centre. Maximising on Luton’s key strengths, which includes its vibrant, modern and diverse arts, culture and heritage offer, and its exceptional transport links, will of course play a crucial part in how we can collectively support the economic recovery.

“The BID is also fully supportive and involved in Luton’s town-wide 2040 vision, the Levelling Up Fund plans, and Luton Town Football Club’s Power Court stadium development, while continuing to promote all the fantastic things to do in the fast-growing Hat District, The Mall, The Galaxy, and our many unique food and drink venues.

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“Despite the ongoing uncertainty and challenges, there definitely feels like there is renewed resilience and strength. Luton town centre is bouncing back and the future is certainly looking bright for our business community, and for residents and visitors alike.”

The report said nationally, Covid-19 has cost businesses in city and large town centres more than a third (35%) of their potential takings since March 2020, with central London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff worst affected. Across the 52 city and town centres studied, 2,426 commercial units have become vacant during the pandemic, against 1,374 between 2018 and 2020.

High streets in economically weaker places have been less impacted by Covid-19. Meanwhile in economically stronger places, business closures increased during the pandemic.

The report states: "This suggests that the Government’s Covid-19 support successfully stalled the decline of many struggling high streets but was less effective in economically stronger places due to higher rents and a lack of custom from office workers.

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"That said, while stronger city centres have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, their higher levels of affluence mean that, if restrictions end and office workers return, they will likely recover quickly.

"Meanwhile, while government support has sheltered weaker places, it may have simply stored up pain for the future. The report warns that many less prosperous places in the East of England face a wave of new business closures this year.

"To avoid permanently levelling down prosperous places, policy makers should run campaigns to encourage leisure visitors back when safe to do so and provide part-time season tickets to encourage workers back to the office.

"For struggling places, policy makers drafting the Levelling Up White Paper should focus on dealing with struggling places’ fundamental economic problems to address high street decline. This means investing in skills and ways to strengthen the wider local economy to increase money in shoppers’ pockets, rather than on ‘cosmetic’ quick fixes such as hanging baskets and painting shop fronts".

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Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, said: “While the pandemic has been a tough time for all high streets it has levelled down more prosperous cities and towns in the East of England. Despite this, the strength of their wider local economies means they are well placed to recover quickly from the past two years.”

Centre for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities. It is a charity that works with cities, business and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies.