The UK’s high streets are at a tipping point. We must act now to save jobs

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I was delighted when I was approached to be a part of Labour’s high streets commission. Usdaw has been representing retail workers for over 150 years, and nobody has more expertise in the retail industry than our members – retail workers.

The coronavirus crisis has hit high street retail hard. For Usdaw’s members in the industry, the crisis has meant stores have been closed – some for nearly a year. Some permanently. Many thousands of workers were furloughed, and sadly for some there is no job to go back to.

So far this year more than 20,000 retail workers have already been made redundant – that’s on top of 180,000 job losses in 2020. It is projected that by the end of this year the total job losses will be approaching 400,000 in 24 months in this one sector alone.

This is what a crisis looks like and we are now at a tipping point. If we allow the UK retail industry to descend further down this road, we may not be able to pull it back. This would be a devastating blow – not just for the workers in retail who we represent, but also for the communities we live in. The high street isn’t just a place to do your shopping – it is a place to meet up with friends, to socialise – and is a proven means for preventing social isolation amongst older people.

Let’s be clear, the British high street was in decline before the coronavirus crisis struck. Usdaw launched its ‘Save Our Shops’ campaign in 2019 to lobby the government to support the struggling retail sector. But the crisis has undoubtedly hurried the move towards online retail, and away from our towns and city centres.

As shops start to reopen across the UK, we are starting to see the true toll the crisis has had on the retail sector. Some big high streets names are no longer with us, and the gaping holes they have left in our high streets will be felt across most towns and cities across the UK. If we do not act, urgently, it may spell the end of the British high street as we know it.

But one thing the coronavirus crisis has taught us is that we can do amazing things to help people when we put our minds to it. Now is the time to take a decision about what we want from our high streets and act to secure that. For us, it is not about standing in the way of changing needs or trying to turn the clock back, but it is about actively working to achieve diverse, sustainable high streets providing jobs and services for our communities.

Usdaw believes that there are some practical measures that could have a significant impact in the recovery of the high street. Our retail recovery plan would tackle business rates and rents, so that brick-and-mortar retailers are on a level playing field with online retailers; we also need to make sure the titans of online retail are paying their fair share of tax in the UK; and most of all, we need a government who will engage with local authorities, unions and shop workers themselves, to work together and to think creatively about what needs to happen to help get our high streets out of this slump.

We have already seen some excellent strategies in some places, including those implemented by the Welsh government and some local authorities, and Usdaw is keen to work with Labour to come up with a plan to turn the tide on the decline right across the UK.

I am convinced that with the right support the British high street can do more than just survive – it can and must thrive once again. We truly hope Labour’s high streets commission is the first step to achieving this regeneration and securing the future of our high streets and the wider retail sector.

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