Radical new thinking is needed if Leicester city centre is going to not just survive, but thrive, beyond the pandemic.
That’s the message from a trio of business groups, which have joined forces to help reshape the city as one fit for purpose in the post-Covid world.
East Midlands Chamber, Leicestershire Business Voice (LBV) and BID Leicester will take research presented by the Centre for Cities think-tank at a recent roundtable discussion to inform Leicester City Council as it develops its next Local Plan.
The study of its commercial property make-up and footfall data showed Leicester was over-reliant on retail within its city centre mix and weekend trade – with a suggestion it needs to focus on attracting businesses that employ high-skilled professionals, who will have better spending power.
Chris Hobson, director of policy and external affairs at the region’s leading business organisation East Midlands Chamber, said: “While in the here and now it is all too easy to see the challenges, as the economy recovers from the impacts of Covid, a city like Leicester has massive potential to grow and excel.
“However, we need to think radically about how we reshape the city centre because yesterday’s thinking won’t shape the place of tomorrow. In order to do this, it’s essential that the business community plays a leading role in sharing ideas and shaping policy to support the creation of a city centre that is open, diverse, welcoming and a place where workers, families, students and others want to spend their time and money.
“The research and discussion identified some fantastic ideas to do this. We now need to work across public and private sector to help turn those ideas into a reality with a bolder approach to decision-making. The recovery presents a fantastic opportunity to think differently and it’s important we seize that.”
Centre for Cities data illustrates Leicester’s challenges existed pre-pandemic
During a webinar on 29 January, titled Learning from economic trends and the pandemic to create better places for the future: How is Leicester shaping up?, Centre for Cities researcher Valentine Quinio presented a series of datasets that showed how Leicester lags behind the national average for highly qualified workers, quality and quantity of office space, and transport accessibility.
The think-tank regards a “strong city centre” to have about three-times as much office space than retail, which is viewed as less of an asset now due to the industry’s transformation to online.
Leicester is composed of 40% retail and 27% office space, while its 15% high street vacancy rate is three percentage points higher than a stronger rival. However, its relatively large proportion of industrial space (15% – double the recommended level) offers scope for repurposing into different uses, such as offices.
Footfall data from pre-pandemic and during the Covid-19 summer recovery showed the city centre was busiest during weekends, but Valentine said activity peaks on weekdays in the most prosperous cities as this offers more opportunities for income.
She added: “Online shopping is less of a threat than the lack of spending power, so the challenge now lies in attracting these high-skilled businesses, which will in turn benefit the whole economy.
“Policy needs to focus on making the city centre an attractive place for businesses to locate and this will require investing in skills, commercial and office space, transport and the public realm.”
The Chamber, LBV and BID Leicester will present the research and other takeaways from the discussion – which included the need to create flexible and co-working spaces for young workers, and establish reasons for people living outside the city to visit – to Leicester City Council and the Leicester and Leicestershire Local Enterprise Partnership for further exploration on how they can be turned into action.
In November last year, the council began a consultation on the Leicester Local Plan, which sets out policies and proposals for the city’s growth over the next 15 years – covering a wide range of issues including future plans for housing, employment, transport and economic development.
LBV chair Robin Pointon, who is also Managing Director of sustainable transport consultancy Go Travel Solutions, said: “The issue of how Leicester’s economy can recover from the pandemic and develop beyond that to build a better city going forward is central to the plans of all city businesses and stakeholders.
“LBV is committed to working on behalf of our member businesses and alongside other local business organisations to influence and shape how the city addresses the key factors influencing how we work, live and learn. In this ambition, both the public and private sector have key parts to play.”
Simon Jenner, director of BID Leicester, which represents more than 700 organisations in the city, added: “We’ve been following the Centre for Cities data closely and one of the things that’s emerged is a strong strategic consensus around the importance of people living and working in the city.
“We’re moving in the right direction in this respect, with some very good examples of businesses relocating to the city in recent years such as Mattioli Woods, IBM and PPL PRS, while there’s also a big increase in high-quality residential accommodation with schemes such as Waterside Leicester.
“There’s also demand for more business relocation so one of the issues we need to look at is the supply of quality office accommodation because we recognise how having more people with spending power in our city will help businesses.”