Irish News

Taking stock of city centre performance

Andrew Webb
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In the latest Irish News, Andrew Webb discusses returning to the highstreet post-lockdown.

I prefer to shop locally, and with three children who seem to get taller every night, the reopening of shops last week was a big relief (to them at least).  We sat out the immediate rush on the Friday thinking the bank holiday Monday would be a bit quieter. Despite the bank holiday downpours, there was a good buzz about the city. Where queueing was required, they were managed well.  Queues seemed more frequent in Victoria Square, perhaps reflecting how the retail core has shifted.

Given the restrictions on shopping over the past four months, an initial burst of demand is entirely expected. The bigger question is whether it will last. Without disregarding the hardship of many who haven’t fared well during the pandemic, many people do have savings that have built up over the last year. Nights out, meals in restaurants and holidays that didn’t happen have seen a build-up in cash. While some of this will remain in savings, or invested in housing or a bigger holiday, there will invariably be a release back in to retail. We shall see over the coming months just how much of and how long the ‘post lockdown bounce’ lasts . The forthcoming retail voucher from the Executive, due towards late summer, could actually be perfectly timed to give spending a nudge.

The more significant point to ponder as our cities and towns re-open is not just whether spending returns, but where spending takes place. We know that online retail has benefitted from the closure of bricks and mortar retail. In March last year, internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales were almost 22%. By May of last year, this had jumped to 33%. As restrictions eased, this rate fell to 26% but has increased again in the latest round of lockdowns and peaked at 36% in January.  While we do see some swing back to bricks and mortar retail as restrictions ease, the march towards online has accelerated.

Sticking with consumer spending, the challenge for Belfast city centre is not only one of online versus bricks and mortar but also one of whether activity in the centre will hollow out to the surrounding areas.  Is Donegall Place’s loss, the Lisburn Road or Ballyhackamore’s win? To gain some insight into this, I have been able to access sales data from Mastercard, through my role as Chair of Belfast City Centre Management (BCCM). The data that BCCM have secured captures credit and debit card spending on any bankcard in the Mastercard network.  It is a fantastically rich data source that should be of interest to anyone who cares about how the city is performing. While not claiming to capture every pound spent (Visa and cash are obviously in play) the Mastercard data gives us definite insights on trends. For example, in April 2020 97% (about £7m) of transactions disappeared compared to a year previous in Belfast’s core retail area, Belfast One. Across the whole city area, spending was down by nearly two thirds, with almost £50m in spending lost compared to a year earlier. It is what happened as the economy started to re-open that prompts most interest.  From June last year through to the end of September, Mastercard spending increased in the whole Belfast Council area compared to the same month in the previous year.  Spending in September was £83m, up by 15%.  It was a very different story in Belfast One.  Here, spending was consistently and considerably down in each month. In June, when the whole city was recording spending growth Belfast One was down 71%. In September, it was still down 29% on a year previous.  Stripping hospitality out of the figures to leave just retail does not change the issue – spending appears to have left the city centre and found a new home in the burbs.

I was asked last week if talk of the death of cities is overplayed. A timely question. As the economy reopens, there is much to pick through around how we use our cities for living, socialising, culture and work.  With firms embracing working from home (although perhaps not as vigorously as at the start of lockdowns) and the public sector moving towards regional hubs, there could be a fundamental shift in footfall numbers in the city centre, and a lot of spending moving elsewhere as a result. This does not spell and end for cities, it presents an opportunity to design more liveable places with more green space, reduced carbon footprints and services all within easy reach.  There is a growing body of work on the 15-minute city – where everything one needs is within a 15-minute walk or cycle. Belfast City Council has an ambitious target to grow the city centre population. This is the chance to design a place where people want to live.