Swindon’s town centre is well placed to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to national research and policy institute Centre for Cities.
In its latest economic assessment of the UK’s largest urban areas, Centre for Cities says the town’s retail heart lost the equivalent of 28 weeks in sales, in line with the national average.
The institute has also placed Swindon in the Top 10 for town centre vacancy rates. From March 2020 to June 2021 town centre vacancies increased by 5.5 per cent. Just over 20 per cent of retail units in the town centre were vacant in June last year, says the report.
The report says the 28 weeks in lost sales broadly aligns with the number of weeks non-essential businesses were shut during the pandemic.
In the South West, Swindon was behind Bristol (39 weeks) and Exeter (35 weeks) over the same period. Neighbouring Oxford lost the equivalent of 41 weeks in sales.
Worst hit was London, the equivalent of 47 weeks in sales, closely followed by Birmingham (46 weeks).
But the think tank says that while stronger town and city centres like Swindon have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic, their higher levels of affluence mean that, if restrictions end and office workers return, they will likely recover quickly.
Since the summer of 2021, a new community centre set up in the disused River Island store in Canal Walk, new restaurants and leisure venues have opened in Regent Circus and Taco Bell joined a host of new independent shops in moving into previously empty units.
And Swindon Borough Council is keen to stress that the next four years will also see over £100 million of council-led investment in the town centre.
This includes public realm improvements, in the shape of the new bus interchange along Fleming Way.
Regeneration projects have also been earmarked through the Towns Fund Board, which will not only restore important heritage buildings and make them more attractive to visitors, but increase jobs and skills through a new vibrant hub for learning, creative and digital technology industries.
Brand new modern offices for Zurich are already well underway and the adjacent Kimmerfields site will deliver 100,000 sq ft of high-quality office space, up to 450 homes and a Cultural Quarter featuring a new theatre, media arts centre and art pavilion over the coming years.
This will help to increase land values and make Swindon more attractive to commercial investors who will provide new services, attractions, homes and workplaces.
Councillor David Renard, leader of Swindon Borough Council, said: “We know Covid-19 has had a major impact on our high street, and the figures from Centre for Cities highlight how these challenges have been reflected right across the country.
“But I think it’s encouraging that the economic experts believe Swindon is well placed to recover quickly and we are already seeing signs of that locally with a number of new businesses opening up over the last few months, which is really positive.
“Our town centre will need to adapt over the next few years and become a place where people come to meet and socialise as well as shop. Over the next four years the Council is leading over £100 million of investment in public realm improvements and regeneration projects within the town centre to increase land values and make Swindon more attractive to potential investors.
“Although the council doesn’t own the majority of land in the town centre, we are working with private landowners to help them bring empty shops back into use.”
Centre for Cities’ chief executive Andrew Carter, said: “It has not been an easy two years for businesses in Swindon, but the strong local economy means that they should be able to expect consumer spending and footfall to pick up again as we hopefully exit the pandemic this year.”
“While the pandemic has been a tough time for all high streets it has levelled down our more prosperous cities and towns. Despite this, the strength of their wider local economies means they are well placed to recover quickly from the past two years.”
“The bigger concern is for economically weaker places – primarily in the North and Midlands – where Covid-19 has actually paused their long-term decline.
“To help them avoid a wave of high street closures this year the Government must set out how it plans to increase peoples’ skills and pay to give them the income needed to sustain a thriving high street.
“Many of these places are in the so-called Red Wall so there is a political imperative for the Government to act fast, as well as an economic one.”