Chamber of commerce chief: Wakefield high street likely to look very different after coronavirus

High streets in the Wakefield district may be changed for good after the coronavirus crisis, according to a leading figure in the local business community.

By David Spereall
Thursday, 9th April 2020, 10:36 am
Updated Thursday, 9th April 2020, 10:38 am

Martin Hathaway, from the Mid Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said it was "too early" to make a specific judgement about what the long-term implications of the pandemic will be for high streets.

But he said the way people work is likely to "change forever" and although he is optimistic retail companies will "bounce back", he suggested many more may run solely online.

The Amazon-era struggles of high streets like Wakefield have been well documented, although the district is on a government shortlist for a £25m grant funding which would help boost its town and city centres.

Martin Hathaway has been managing director of the Mid Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce since 2014.

Asked how Wakefield's high street may look once the crisis is over, Mr Hathaway said: "I think this is a chance to look at the whole issue.

"There's a chance to step back and look at what our high streets will look like in the future.

"I think it will make people think more strategically about whether they need an actual premises, or if they just run online.

"As long as we've got a plan to come out the other side then I think we will.

Wakefield Council has applied for grant funding from the government to help give the high street a boost.

"But it's still very early days because this happened so quickly so it's difficult to say exactly what will happen.

Mr Hathaway praised the state's response to the crisis and Wakefield Council's handling of emergency support - the local authority has administered around £32m worth of help to nearly 3,000 firms so far.

But he called on banks to "step up" and lend more to businesses to help with cashflow problems.

Mr Hathaway said: "The public sector response has been incredible. I've been very, very impressed and I don't say that lightly.

"The grants are really useful and Wakefield Council has excelled in getting the cash out there.

"The issue is how much the grants are. £10,000 sounds like a lot of money, but actually for many businesses that will go in a very short space of time.

"Even if you've furloughed you still need the cash to pay them before you can claim the money back off the government."

Mr Hathaway, who's been chamber's managing director since 2014, called on the government to consider a "VAT holiday" to help with cashflow and hopes the end of the crisis will prompt a "top to bottom" revamp of the business rates and tax systems.

Suggesting gyms and pubs will be among the hardest-hit victims of the crisis, he also suggested working from home may become a more popular long-term option for workers.

"I think the leisure industry will be hit," he said.

"There was an article this morning about how gyms' incomes have dropped overnight because they're not charging membership fees, but their outgoings on staff who've been furloughed remain.

"They don't know how long this will go on for, so they don't know how much to borrow.

"So I do think the leisure industry will be changed in the future and it may take some time to get back on its feet.

"I also think people will see a completely different way of working. The whole working routine will be changed forever.

"I spend my life in meetings and now I'm not spending an hour getting to them and back I've been much more productive."

Local Democracy Reporting Service