How the recession killed the high street

Where shops and pubs once thrived, now bookmakers and boarded up premises live
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The Independent Online

With a steady stream of wealthy residents and tourists willing to spend thousands on a dress or necklace, the jewellery shops and branded boutiques of Bond Street are doing brisk business despite the economic downturn. Lined by the likes of Asprey, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada, the premium shopping street in London's West End is likely to remain a picture of retail prosperity for decades to come.

But Bond Street in Bristol is a markedly different story, despite being a short walk from the bustling Broadmead shopping mall.

Aside from a few new shops, a nail bar and a tailor's, the street is struggling. Ladbroke's and the sex shop Ann Summers are among the few places still open.

According to a survey published by Ordnance Survey yesterday, Bristol's Bond Street may more closely resemble the future of Britain's high streets than its West End namesake, because shop closures, which were a steady stream during the last decade, have recently turned into a flood.

Using address data and reports from its own surveyors, the mapping agency looked at the number and types of businesses on high streets in England and Wales two years ago, in October 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and last month.

The figures show that thousands of traditional outlets have disappeared: building societies decreased by 28 per cent, down 943 branches; employment agencies 13 per cent, down 450 branches; and estate agencies 9 per cent, down 452 branches. Betting shops were one of the outlets to thrive, with their numbers jumping by 5 per cent, adding 280 bookies.

The North of England lost the most shops proportionately. Dan Hughes, the sector manager of land and property at Ordnance Survey, said: "It is no surprise that there have been changes on the high street due to the turbulence of the past two years, but our mapping data shows that some high street firms have been hit harder than others."

Ordnance Survey did not comment on why these businesses were disappearing from the high street, and the building society figures are hard to countenance, despite the consolidation in the sector.

Nonetheless, its survey echoes a report published by the Local Data Company in September, A Gathering Storm?, which found 13 per cent of shops were vacant, compared with 12 per cent at the end of 2009 – an eight-point rise in six months.

The loss of some shops is a result of the slump, with the sudden slowdown in the housing and job markets hampering estate and employment agencies, but the high street is also under pressure from retail parks which offer chain retailers larger premises.

The Arcadia clothes chain containing Top Shop is planning to shut 300 high street stores, Mothercare is relocating outlets to retail parks, Game plans to shut 90 stores and HMV plans to close 60. Meanwhile, less shopping is being done physically – and more virtually via the internet. Online sales – which leapt 18 per cent last year to represent more than one-fifth of all sales, £58.8bn – will more than double to £123bn by the end of the decade, according to the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG)-Capgemini e-tail index. As a result of this double whammy, many fear the number of boarded up shop fronts will keep rising even when better times return. Some town and city centres threaten to become ghost towns.

According to Local Data Company (LDC), which is expected to report a further rise in vacancies on 15 February, one in four shop premises in Blackpool, Bradford, Wolverhapton and Doncaster are empty, with Blackpool having the single highest rate of vacancies, 28 per cent.

One in five shops in Manchester, Nottingham, Hull and Sheffield has closed its doors. In Altrincham, the market town on the fringe of Manchester, 30 per cent of retail premises are empty, while in Margate (one of the relatively few southern victims), Dewsbury and Stockton-on-Tees the figure is 27 per cent. As the economy improves, the picture in some centres is improving, such as central London (containing Bond Street), Bath, Cardiff and Liverpool indicating they are "coming out of recession", according to the Local Data Company.

There was little sign of that in Bristol yesterday, though. Some 14 per cent of Bristol's shops are empty and, in Bond Street, there were boarded up shops, away from Ladbrokes – visible evidence of the rising prominence of bookies – and Ann Summers, which was doing well.

One outlet looked conspicuously new, wedged between Ladbrokes and a closed double-glazing shop.

Zeirhuddin Qurandi, a 44-year-old tailor from Afghanistan, set up Bristol Tailory in the street when he closed his tailor's business in the East End of London because of rising costs. Despite the difficulties, he was delighted to find an empty shop in a city centre: slumps can be opportunities, too. "This recession had helped me find a shop in a good location," Mr Qurandi said.

"The rent is not cheap because the landlord is a property company, and they kept the shop closed for three years rather than lower the rent."

But his other costs are low, because he works alone. "It is difficult for me to find someone to employ because he would have to be a tailor, and they don't train tailors now," he said.

Nearby, a music shop closed when the owner moved somewhere smaller and cheaper. Further along, Nails Galore, which opened in the teeth of the recession in 2008, is getting along.

The shop offers American-style treatment. Its Vietnamese proprietor, Luu Lay, pointed out there were some goods and services which are unavailable electronically.

"People have to come into the shop because this is not something you can buy over the internet like books or DVDs," she said.

"And women who have the full manicure come back every two or three weeks for nail care. Men come in too, but not as many here as when I worked in London."

She added: "We survive but it's hard, because there are fewer people walking past. The students can't afford it because of their tuition fees and other people are saving money. Our best time is in the holiday season when people want to make themselves look good for parties."

Ever optimistic, she said: "Business will pick up when the weather gets better."

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