Our local high streets are not just places we go to buy things, they are the setting for the experience of socialising, of interacting with our neighbours and meeting new people. Popping out to the shops is a part of who we are and part of our lives that has had to be taken away in recent months in the fight against coronavirus.
On 2 December, we moved from national lockdown restrictions which saw so many of our businesses close, to a slightly less strict system of national tiers which has seen many of them reopen. Our shops, hairdressers, gyms, sports clubs and churches have now thankfully reopened in the run up to Christmas, and their closure has certainly led to our renewed appreciation for the social interactions that having them open brings. While I have made clear I was unhappy with our area being placed into the highest tier, and I am still extremely concerned for our hospitality sector, one consolation is the reopening of much of our high street shops.
This week there was a further glimmer of hope as we all watched 90 year-old Margaret Keenan receive the first approved coronavirus vaccine in the world, and at Lincoln County Hospital the first people in our county received it. This marks a turning point against the virus and will ultimately enable us to start to return to normalcy which will not just provide footfall for our high street, it will provide certainty.
However, even pre-Covid, high street shops across the country have been suffering from enhanced competition from online retailers, the virus only accelerated trends towards online shopping, it did not create them. Today we do 19% of our shopping online compared to just 5% ten years ago, and certain shops selling clothes and books have been hit harder than others.
Our high street, as a central part of our community, must not only survive this crisis but bounce back stronger. This is exactly why the government established a new High Streets Future Fund last year and I hope we can secure funding for our town to pay for renovations to public gardens and converting spaces above shops into new homes, for example.
This also means we need to shop local if our high street is to compete against online retailers and prosper. A great example of this is #ShopStamford, run by the remarkable local champion, Sarah Sewell, has done wonders to raise the profile of our town’s high street and to emphasise the importance of shopping locally. This is more important than ever.
We will not succeed in levelling up the UK unless we invest in the social fabric of communities, it is often the high street and the civic networks of a place that determines people's happiness and prosperity. After the pandemic, we need to invest in a revival in our community with the high street at the very heart of it.