High streets: Harrogate council deputy leader 'extremely optimistic' about Covid recovery
The deputy leader of Harrogate council has said he is "extremely optimistic" about the future of high streets as he revealed positive economic data boosted by the reopening.
Councillor Graham Swift, who is also cabinet member for resources, enterprise and economic development at the council, said the number of vacant shops across the district had fallen to 6.8% in March - a "significant improvement" from 8.6% around this time last year.
He added data on people's movements showed the number of visitors to rural areas had returned to pre-pandemic levels, although Harrogate, Knaresborough and Ripon had not yet reached this point.
Speaking at a meeting on Wednesday, councillor Swift said: "I'm extremely optimistic. The rural areas are already seeing traffic flow of people movements as measured by Google back to pre-pandemic levels.
"The three major conurbations are not back to pre-pandemic levels yet but the fact is retail is looking extremely positive and I'm very hopeful we will see a strong bounce back in the economy."
Shops classed as vacant are those which are not paying business rates to the council.
Councillor Swift said the strongest performing areas for this currently are Boroughbridge which has just one vacant shop and Pateley Bridge which has a vacancy rate of 2.5%.
His comments followed a question from Boroughbridge councillor Robert Windass who said members of the public were "curious" over the current state of high streets during the Covid crisis.
Councillor Swift responded: "We are now seeing considerable extension of the opening up and unlocking of the country. Last week we saw the opening up of non-essential retail on 12 April.
"I went into Harrogate on that morning and was overwhelmed by the innovation and creativity that is going on, particularly around the bar and hospitality sector who have used limited spaces to create exciting opportunities to open up.
"I was very, very impressed by the sector but most important to this question is what is going to be happening in the near future.
"There has been a lot of talk over the last few months about Harrogate as a district and how its towns and city have responded to retail sector closures and the threat to retail in the future.
"A lot of people count the stores to see which ones are open or closed. In a case where we are in lockdown it's obvious that people will see things closed and think they have withdrawn from the site.
"But in actual fact, what we record are the business rate activities of these retail sectors and I'm extremely heartened by the fact that as of March 2021 our retail sector has improved."
The latest unemployment figures for the Harrogate district show a slight increase with 3,625 people claiming out-of-work benefits in February, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
This equates to 3.8% of the population aged 16 to 64 and is up from 3,460 in January.
Meanwhile, the number of people in the district who were furloughed from their jobs stood at 12,300 in February, according to the latest HM Revenue & Customs figures.
This was an increase from 9,100 in December before the third national lockdown began.
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter