THE coronavirus crisis has accelerated major changes to Brighton's shopping streets, a retail expert has said.

Gavin Stewart, chief executive of the Brighton Business Improvement District also known as Brilliant Brighton, said a reimagining of the city's high street scene was already under way, but the vast lifestyle changes brought about by the pandemic had pressed fast forward on the process.

Much of this change has been brought about by the popularity of online shopping, which has skyrocketed during lockdown periods over the last year as the majority of physical stores were forced to shut for months at a time.

Mr Stewart said: "Even before the pandemic the high street was changing – Covid has only speeded it up. Prior to lockdown, Brits were using the internet for about 30 per cent of their purchases. Now, it’s more like 60 per cent.

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

"That’s not to say that things will remain at this level, but it does mean that things have changed, possibly irrevocably. With that, there is a real opportunity for a reimagining of the high street with a rebirth of the ‘shopping’ experience."

Bradley Gough, the founder of Nottingham-based company Groubook which manages an app that "makes it easier for friends to organise, schedule and book nights out", had an idea of what this high street renaissance could entail.

He said he "would love to see hospitality and culture play a major part in reinvigorating these areas".

"The departure of high street favourites like Debenhams, Top Shop, Burtons and Dorothy Perkins has led to thousands of job losses and a gaping hole in the high street offering," he said.

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

"But the high street isn’t dying. Instead it is in a state of transition away from the traditional one we have had for the last 50 years.

"Even before the pandemic, there were closures and a declining demand for retail space. Shopping online has been steadily on the rise for a decade, but lockdown has accelerated our use of it.

"We would like to see the disused retail spaces transformed into something new, ready for all of the fun to be had post-pandemic. Throughout history, high streets have been the centres of communities, playing important roles in commerce, business but also for social gatherings and events."

Brilliant Brighton chief executive Mr Stewart agreed that the city centre sites left empty by the permanent withdrawal of big brands from the high street could be reinvented.

He said: "Unused retail units may repurpose to become community hubs, creative spaces or heritage centres.

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

"Visitors to the city (and, pre-Covid there were a lot of them, 11.5 million a year in fact) will be looking for a new experience.

"So, we’ve got to come back brighter, safer and cleaner than before, with a range of services from across arts, culture, heritage, hospitality and retail to maintain Brighton’s place as the destination on the south coast."

Yesterday, the Labour Party delivered a damning forecast in which it warned that tourist hotspots such as Brighton which are reliant on the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors are in danger of seeing their high streets “hollowed out” if coronavirus support is scaled back.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband has urged ministers to extend the current tax relief available to avoid England’s third lockdown from creating a host of ghost towns.


But Mr Stewart argued that Brighton and Hove would not meet this fate, with continued interest from businesses looking to set up sites in the city.

He said: "The stats from the recent Labour party analysis are stark, but we are hearing a different story from retail and hospitality businesses which are actively looking to come in to the city.

"We are hopeful that, once all this is over, those 11.5 million visitors will come back to the city to enjoy everything it has to offer.

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

Brighton city centre under the third national lockdown restrictions

"So, if there is any hollowing out, it will be short-lived and lead the way for a new, vibrant and welcoming city."

While he said it was not yet possible to say which businesses had expressed interest in opening sites in Brighton, he said that " the positive message is that there have been and continues to be interest in the city".

"When you just look at the raw data, we are heavily reliant on the retail and leisure sectors, but that doesn’t take in to account the unique vibe of the city, which is what will help Brighton and Hove survive post-pandemic."