THE coronavirus pandemic has certainly had a significant effect on high streets up and down the country, with vacant units and to let signs appearing at a pace, but it appears that Winchester has bucked the trend.

The latest BRC-LDC shop vacancy monitor has revealed that the vacancy rate across the UK increased to 14.1 per cent in the quarter to the end of March 2021, from 13.7 per cent in the last three months of 2020.

But Winchester has fared much better, according to Winchester BID’s latest Barometer Report the city centre vacancy rate is falling; from 11.2 per cent at the start of 2021 to 10 per cent in April with the prospect of further reductions this year and in 2022.

And in February, Winchester was named as one of Britain’s leading shopping locations. The city ranked as the UK's 34th best performing, in a list of 1,000 retail centres compiled by strategic retail property consultancy, Harper Dennis Hobbs (HDH). It climbed 27 places compared to last year’s rankings.

Sadly, the high street has lost Debenhams, Laura Ashley and Edinburgh Woollen Mill, however other shops and hospitality venues have survived, but what has been done to help these shops stay open?

Throughout the pandemic Winchester City Council has paid out £44.8 million of Government grants to local businesses of various kinds and a further £1.4 million in Discretionary Grant Funding which has allowed shops to remain open.

The authority has also said that it has distributed £3.6 million in additional restriction grants and allocated a further £1.3million for grants to support businesses severely impacted by Covid restrictions.

As previously reported, high street business Pet Pantry benefitted from the council’s Additional Restrictions Grant. When many shops and businesses closed across the city centre footfall fell dramatically and takings at the Pet Pantry were down by 75 per cent.

Speaking to the Chronicle previously, Lynn Connell, owner of the family-run business, said: “Prior to Covid 30 per cent of our takings were from people working in local offices, 50 per cent were from visitors and tourists and 20 per cent from local residents.

“With no footfall to the city our income dramatically reduced. The grant we received from the council has been crucial to our survival as it has helped us to cover our rent during this difficult time.”

A city council spokesperson said: “Supporting our local businesses continues to a be a priority, and residents have gone above and beyond to shop local during the pandemic. Our strong independent businesses in both retail and food and drink, have been flexible and agile in changing how they reach their customers; rapidly developing or enhancing their online 'shop', offering delivery services, looking for new or different products.

“This has been supported by our ‘Love Local Shop Local’ campaign to encourage residents to use their local high street businesses. Our accessible and open-air high streets also mean they have been able to accommodate the social distancing requirements to enable business to trade.

“As a council we have used funding from Enterprise M3 LEP’s ‘Supporting High Street Fund’ to make the high street Covid-19 secure for workers and shoppers with increased awareness around social distancing. Additional funding from ERDF ‘Reopening High Street Safely Fund’ helped businesses get back to business, from online digital masterclasses to Covid Ambassadors on the high street to provide support and advice as restrictions were lifted. The success is a testament to entrepreneurial spirit found on the high street, and across Winchester district.”

The district has also realised that it is not just about physical shops, but looking how independent shops and businesses, which are ever are popular in Winchester, can survive online.

The city council has launched a ‘virtual high street’ and is urging firms to register for online shopping and ordering platform, which will provide further opportunities to promote their services and sell products to local customers from the comfort of their own home.

The council and ShopAppy is offering free membership to all businesses and community organisations in the district for the first 12 months.

The platform allows customers to browse virtual shop windows, book appointments and events as well as order products from local stores using a delivery or ‘click and collect’ service.

Cllr Martin Tod, cabinet member for economic recovery, said: “More and more people want to shop locally online as well as offline – and we strongly support that. To that end, we’re offering ShopAppy free to businesses and community organisations across the district for the next 12 months. It’s just one part of the council’s plans to help local businesses recover, innovate and thrive in a post Covid-19 world.”

As the country comes out of lockdown, the city has seen footfall increase with customers keen to come back and use those businesses which have survived. Winchester BID has reported that in June the city centre footfall was up 73 per cent year-on-year and four per cent since May.

Winchester BID executive director, Dr Paul Spencer said: “Our latest Business Barometer Survey for Winchester shows that trading prospects have improved significantly since the start of the year, and annual sales across all sectors are now expected to rise. Online sales are still rising so the proportion of digital revenues are much higher than before the pandemic, however footfall in the city centre is increasing and the commercial property vacancy rate is beginning to fall.”

Dr Spencer added: “Winchester is a popular location and now that restrictions are easing it is attracting investment and new businesses are opening. The city has a varied mix of businesses as well as a strong and resilient independent business community which contributes to the character and success of Winchester as a great place to live, work and visit.”