Harrogate business leaders plead for 'next stage' of easing of lockdown

Harrogate business leaders welcomed the return of queues of shoppers this week but say the town desperately needs the next phase of easing lockdown to come quickly.

Friday, 19th June 2020, 5:47 pm
M&S staff member Jo Fowler preparing the clothes department at Marks and Spencers' main store in Harrogate for reopening earlier this week. (Picture Gerard Binks)

As the doors were unlocked in the retail sector there were calls for a swift decision on when Harrogate’s food and drink sector would be allowed to reopen, too.

Despite delight at customers bringing a buzz to the town centre for the first time in nearly three months, fears remain that footfall will be nowhere near good enough for cash-starved traders without a revival of cafes, bars and restaurants.

Harrogate MP Andrew Jones is calling on residents to shop local in the crucial weeks and months ahead but businesses themselves are keen to see further measures.

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Harrogate BID interim manager Simon Kent said it was clear Monday’s reopening of ‘non essential’ shops with strict social distancing had been welcomed by many people.

But, in a view shared by Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce, he said this must be seen only as a start if customers numbers were to recover fully and the good times return.

Mr Kent said: “Walking around Harrogate town centre on Monday morning, there was a definite buzz and people seemed genuinely happy to be able to go shopping again. As the week has drawn on, we are seeing more shops reopening, including more of the ‘big names’, which is fantastic news.

"But, now the retail sector is up and running, it’s vital that we do everything in our power to ensure the hospitality and leisure sector is given every assistance to enable it to reopen as quickly as possible.”

Steve Scarre, president of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce said this week was only the first stage of the road back to prosperity. What was now needed was to reopen the whole town once more.

Mr Scarre said: “Having shops reopened is an important step in kick-starting Harrogate’s economy back into life, and it needs our support more than ever.

"The sooner the whole town is open for businesses, the better. Everything must be done to ensure it happens as soon as possible.”

If a ‘phase 2’ of reopening means anything, it is about practical matters that deter shoppers.

Although customers are returning, the continuing restrictions of social distancing and customer safety during the pandemic put pressure on footfall as a matter of course.

It’s a situation smaller shops and local independents tend to feel more keenly than the more spacious, larger chain stores.

Talk in Harrogate’s business community is turning to the necessity of reopening cafes, restaurants, bars and, to be blunt, public toilets.

Sandra Doherty of Harrogate Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said a full recovery needed the reopening of the hospitality sector and food and drink outlets.

The chamber’s chief executive said: “From speaking with Chamber members on Monday, I understand Monday was quite busy for a good number of retail units, in particular Primark, Sports Direct and other outlets within Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre.

“Wandering through town this morning on Tuesday it was good to see shoppers about on the streets of Harrogate, although not in great numbers.

“Hopefully by the weekend, and with additional shops opening on a daily basis, more people will choose to come back to Harrogate to shop, and enjoy the town. I hope those not yet open are just taking their time, rather than closed for ever.

“Although one couple I spoke to were quite disappointed to find that Bettys was still closed, I was able to point them in the direction of cafes that I did know were open for takeaway food and drinks.

“All in all, it was positive for Harrogate as we move forward into the summer when more of the hospitality outlets open and bring some welcome buzz to the town.”

The virus may not be completely beaten yet, though infection rates are dropping all the time.

But growing storm clouds over the country’s job prospects are injecting a feeling of urgency to get the recovery going as quickly as possible.

In recent weeks Harrogate Business Improvement District has invested money raised from a business levy on social distancing packs for shops reopening and a deep clean of the town centre.

Although the big names such as Primark, Sports Direct and other outlets within Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre have reported healthy sales figures this week, a significant number of independent traders remained unhappy at the reintroduction of parking charges by North Yorkshire County Council and Harrogate Borough Council.

In advance of Monday, Independent Harrogate pressure group, which has more than 200 members, warned that free parking should have been retained longer and traders would have to work hard to reassure customers they could open safely.

But it had been a reasonable start, an IH spokesperson said: “We have heard from clothing retailers that were busy on the opening day Monday, about double the numbers they would usually expect.

“For others it is too early to measure, but everyone was happy finally to be able to trade again.

“But there has been comment about the lack of public toilets in town.”

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