Home Working Hits City Centre Businesses – Hard
Establish Task Force ASAP says Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Retail NI
Belfast Chamber of Commerce has said that WFM – Working From Home – could hit city centre traders to the tune of £200 million, and has called on the Executive to establish its High Street Task Force as a matter of urgency.
A survey of 500 businesses by Belfast Chamber revealed that only 5 per cent of office workers had returned full time – that’s one in twenty.
Economist Dr Esmond Birnie estimates the loss in trade to the city centre could be as high as £200m. The dramatic drop in the use of office buildings could stall the city centre’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
Belfast Chamber says ‘genuine concern exists’ among its members about the scale of job losses and business closures that are yet to come – with potential long term impact.
Almost 30 per cent of businesses surveyed lost more than half of turnover since the start of the pandemic. Over a third fear a worse than 30 per cent drop over the next six months .
Footfall in the city centre has dropped by over half, said 50 per cent of survey respondents.
With only 5 per cent of office workers back at their office desks full time, 35 per cent are still working from home. Many of those office workers use their local convenience store for lunch, snacks, and top up shopping.
Four out of ten businesses don’t anticipate a return to the office for the rest of the year. Some cited concerns about Executive guidance as a reason, while childcare and safety concerns also feature strongly.
Belfast Chamber’s CEO Simon Hamilton said “A contributing factor to the drop in footfall is the absence of many office based workers. A prolonged drop in footfall will present major problems for businesses in Belfast, especially those in retail, hospitality and leisure.
“It is fair to say that these results represent a cause for genuine concern for the future of many businesses, jobs and the city centre itself.”
He went on to say “We’ve already witnessed some of the devastation that the coronavirus pandemic has brought on our city centre with closures of stores like Eason’s and job losses at Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and others.
“These survey results show that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
“Achieving the safe return of office based workers to Belfast is an essential ingredient in the recovery of our city’s economy that will assist in maintaining jobs and ensure that Belfast remains an attractive place to visit and invest in when the pandemic has passed.”
Simon Hamilton concluded by saying that these survey results should prompt the NI Executive to establish its proposed High Street Task Force as soon as possible, and also consider how they can continue to support businesses in the city and town centres.
Retail NI echoed the call from Belfast Chamber of Commerce. Chief executive Glyn Roberts said “It is absolutely vital that the Executive now works with business on a strategy for the safe return of office workers. This is crucial.
“Office workers provide a large amount of footfall and trade for the retail and hospitality sectors in many of our high streets. Given that both sectors are facing severe difficulties at the moment, the return of office workers is vital for their viability.”
Retail NI also called for the Executive’s High Street Task Force to co-ordinate this strategy and man other measures to deal with the emergency facing towns and cities in Northern Ireland.