Alice Babington is a member of Conservative Young Women South West.
For generations, the high streets of our rural towns have been in decline. The increasing competition posed by online shopping, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has caused smaller high street shops to struggle. Before the pandemic, high streets had suffered a ten per cent decrease in footfall over the prior seven years. With the onset of the pandemic, the high street suffered an average 39.1 per cent decrease in footfall over the course of 2020.
The pandemic has also demonstrated how many jobs can be done remotely, with much of the population having worked from home for the past 12 months. Home working during the pandemic has highlighted the huge waste imposed by long commutes to cities. For workers, the commute is a waste of time and expense and damages their wellbeing. For businesses, home working has shown much of their office overheads to be an unnecessary expense that eats into profits. Furthermore, with the Conservative Party’s “Green Industrial Revolution” in sharp focus, millions of daily commutes only serve to harm the environment and frustrate attempts to tackle climate change.
It has thrown traditional routes to employment into question. No longer is university necessarily the preferred choice for school leavers and many would prefer to stay in their hometown and move straight into a job. Businesses based in small towns, devoid of job centres and links with local schools, struggle to recruit from the local population or convince suitable candidates to commute long distances from nearby cities.
Providing local, flexible, workspaces can help to solve these issues for workers, businesses, students, and the environment.
During a recent ‘Tell Number 10’ meeting hosted by Conservative Young Women South West, chaired by Jenny Rackham and attended by Alice Babington, Dan Brown and Samantha Dennis, the idea of developing “High Street Hubs” was proposed. These hubs could be implemented in rural towns to provide a community for agile workers, tackle environmental pollution associated with city commutes, incorporate an independent careers advice and mentorship service for local students, and boost failing high streets.
It will be interesting to see, in the rapidly approaching post-pandemic world, how many businesses encourage their employees to work from home, either partially or permanently. An increase in remote working will undoubtedly lead to demand for local hot-desking space, both from those who do not have room for a designated workspace at home, and for those who prefer to not mix work and home life so intimately.
The use of the proposed High Street Hubs could be incentivised by the provision of National Insurance/Working Tax Credits for employers and employees who make use of these hubs. For reference, it’s currently the case that an employee on a remote working contract pays five per cent less in national insurance contributions.
The presence of High Street Hubs would boost the everyday footfall on high streets, and focus consumer power in our regional towns, not just the largest cities. They would encourage businesses focused on services for workers to open nearby, providing the high streets of our rural towns a new lease of life.
In many areas of life, a return to the status quo is what we crave after this difficult pandemic period. But when it comes to the British high street, and the health of our regional towns, the status quo just won’t do. High Street Hubs could provide people with the chance to work in a thriving community environment; improved mental health and well-being; reduced environmental pollution and improved careers advice.
This is a collaborative article following a Tell No. Ten Policy Forum hosted by Conservative Young Women South West on 18th February 2021.