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Owen Davies

Shutdown Towns – How we measured the impact of Coronavirus closures on small towns

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The reality of shutdown towns isn’t breaking news. The economic lockdown has all but turned our local high streets and business parks into ghost towns. So how do we measure the economic impact over such a short space of time in smaller towns where data isn’t so readily available? And what might the data tell us to help prepare urgent restart and revival packages for the local economy?

It comes as no surprise that there is very little data, so far, available for the smaller market towns, partly because they are not covered by the reports from national brand and property industry surveys. And to fill in the gaps by walking the streets with a clipboard collecting data isn’t permitted under the existing restrictions. However, in the months before the pandemic, our team were researching the baseline economy of five market towns in Carmarthenshire (Llanybydder, Newcastle Emlyn, St Clears, Whitland and Laugharne) as part of Carmarthenshire’s Ten Towns Initiative. We found, through combining our business and property survey data with selected census and employment statistics, and online research of business activity during the lockdown,  we were able to identify early economic insights for each town.

JOBS MOST ‘AT RISK’

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has identified occupations most at risk and it is almost certain jobs will be lost across most occupation sectors. However, not all business will have been affected equally, some businesses continue to operate but could struggle when government financial support is lifted, others have adapted to work at home, whilst many businesses will have furloughed staff and keeping them in employment for the time being at least.

We calculated 35% people in employment across our five towns are in occupation groups most at risk. These include administrative, sales, leisure and elementary occupations that often employ a higher number of young people, women and low earners. Across the five towns, unemployment would increase by 70% if even one in five of the most at-risk staff lost their jobs. The true impact of job losses may only be seen after the furlough periods ends in July and October.

Our analysis takes into account that some areas of the economy have seen employment growth including distribution, online retail and healthcare. To what extent this is short term growth is also unknown.

HIGHER OCCUPATIONAL GROUPS LIKELY TO WORK FROM HOME

The ability to work from home is likely to have made some jobs less vulnerable. This ability to work from home varies significantly across industries and occupations, and those in higher occupational and professional groups are ten times more likely to be able to work from home: managers, directors and senior officials. The swift adoption of home working by most sectors means the jobs of most professional occupations, between 20% and 27% of employees across the five towns, are likely to have been less vulnerable. Of course, this doesn’t take account of the actual capacity to work digitally from home. Carmarthenshire experiences some of the worst and in some cases non-existent broadband connectivity in Wales where it’s a concern for delivering economic growth under the ‘old normal’ let alone during the economic lockdown. Across the five towns the level of premises unable to get superfast quality speeds ranges between 40% and 70%.

SELF EMPLOYED

The self-employed have also been hard hit, with many experiencing abrupt and, in some cases, total loss of income. The Governments scheme to provide income support to the self-employed with a taxable grant worth up to 80% of trading profits come into operation later this month. All the towns studied have about one in five of the workforce in self-employment, more than the rural Carmarthenshire as a whole.

THE PROPORTION OF BUSINESSES IN SHUT DOWN SECTORS

In March, the UK Government directed certain sectors of businesses to close. These businesses include restaurants, pubs, café, non-food retail, hotels etc. The businesses that remained open included medical services, garages and petrol stations, banks, hardware shops, tool hire agricultural supplies shops, corner shops and newsagents etc. However, many shops that could have remained open have closed with health concerns for staff and customer taking priority. Some businesses have only been able to reopen in the last few weeks as they have adapted their operations to the new regulations.

Using the data from our business premises research and surveys we have estimated the number of businesses located in shut down sectors located by town. We estimate 42% of businesses across the town centre, business parks and wider hinterland are in shut down sectors. We are cautious about these figures because they include all retail and services when in reality some retail businesses have remained open. However, the figures indicate a large variation of between 42% and 67% closure across the five towns reflecting the diversity of their economic base. Towns with a higher proportion of leisure/retail and service businesses are worse-off compared to those with a larger industrial base.

The Impact on Retail, Leisure and Hospitality has been widely reported and using our latest business surveys we estimate 82% of town centre businesses may have closed due to the pandemic.

For many retail businesses, with their customers under lockdown, shops shut, cashflow drying up and their staff on furlough, it’s a case of survival. But among all these threats, some companies, big and small, are finding new commercial opportunities.  Well run independent convenience businesses have adapted to provide home delivery and takeaway services, where people are unable to leave home or wish to avoid supermarkets. These are habits that might last beyond the crisis. We have gathered online evidence that some 13 businesses in the five towns, notably those selling food and groceries, have adapted quickly and are providing new home delivery services. However, the extent that home delivery has been enough to offset other financial losses being unknown.

There are also some 50 food and drink business located across the five towns and when the restrictions are lifted, there is likely to be sub-economics for many businesses trading with fewer customers under social distancing measures. Local businesses in this sector have claimed that operating under such circumstances is ‘more catastrophic’ than being shut with furloughed staff.

The 100 accommodation businesses located across the five towns are closed until further notice, although our research identified 5% had re-opened for specific purposes such as accommodating key workers. However, all businesses face uncertainty because they have been requested to take no bookings for the lockdown periods, the length of which is currently unknown.

AGRICULTURE

Some 10% of the workforce are employed in agriculture, a higher proportion in the five towns than rural Carmarthenshire as a whole. The pandemic has seen abrupt changes in supply chains and consumer buying patterns that is varied across the different agricultural sectors. Fluctuations in prices have also been damaging with dramatic falls in milk and instability in livestock. The closure of the foodservice/hospitality sector has had a significant impact on both the red meat and dairy sectors which has left supply chains struggling to re-align themselves to retail-led demand. Likewise, innovation and in the growth of veg boxes or milk home delivery is unlikely to have offset losses elsewhere.

However, on a positive note, the livestock markets in Llanybydder, Newcastle Emlyn and Whitland have reopened. Food sales are a mainstay of livestock markets and their continuance will have been key for the sustainability of local farms, local producers and the market operators. With financial uncertainties, markets are important to achieve competitive/maximum prices rather than lower prices often achieved with dead-weight sales. Llanybydder Market returned during April and the auctioneers posted successful reports online with cattle, ewe and lamb sales demand was very strong and buyers supportive which saw a terrific top price”. Similar reports from Newcastle Emlyn of ‘demand certainly outstripped supply’. Whitland Market returned in mid-April and reported ‘top prices for both steers and heifers’. The return of the markets and strong sale prices experienced are likely to positively impact on the economic, employment and community life of the town and benefit other businesses that remain open such as farm machinery dealers, feed merchants.

OTHERS ‘LOSING OUT’

Our baseline studies of the five towns established an abundance of ‘hidden’ microbusinesses, many in newer ‘lifestyle’, visitor-related and creative industries that combine both living and working in rural areas. The businesses can range from sole practitioners, freelancers to limited companies. The higher than average self-employment levels in the five towns also reflects the foundational side of the economy with people providing essential and day to day local services such as local trades, driving instructors, child and social care. This form of employment is often part-time and with people holding down more than one job. Some of the notable examples of businesses ‘losing out’ are those without premises, company directors, freelancers and the most recently self-employed who have not benefitted from some of the Governments support which has been made available. Some of the specific groups considered to be missing out include: start-ups; directors who are paying themselves via dividends and not wages; non-VAT registered firms; self-catering businesses and home workers/sublets.

And finally, our research established that social care businesses are one of the largest employers and fastest-growing part of the town’s rural economy. Whilst the viability of the private sector provision was known to be quite fragile before the pandemic Care Forum Waleshas recently reported the sector could lose half of its care homes within a year because of rising costs and reduced revenues unless urgent action is taken. And the situation is likely to be exacerbated with coronavirus putting the already fragile sector in jeopardy because of increasing staffing costs; rising overheads such as PPE and falling occupancy. There is a real sense of closures happening within the sector.

The purpose of our analysis has been to provide a greater sense of the economic impact of Coronavirus to inform decisions that help to fire up the economy. The evidence exists that the five towns we have studied have experienced the significant economic shock we thought they had. Most of the data we used for our analysis is readily available and would help you understand the economic impacts on your towns.

If you want to know more about how we did it contact Owen at

owen @owendaviesconsulting.co.uk.

 

Chapeau! – investment in closed road cycling circuits (CRC’s) facilities across the UK

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As cycling’s popularity grows, so does the need for new facilities to support and encourage higher levels of participation in one of the most accessible, healthy, green and social activities there is.

In the same way that the introduction of all-weather pitches resulted in a huge increase in grassroots football, the development of traffic-free Closed Road Circuit (CRC’s), as they are known, is having the same impact for cycling and other wheeled sports. There are around 20 facilities already located across the UK, their purpose is not only about supporting high performance and elite level cycling, but also directed to encouraging participation in wheeled sports for leisure, sport, coaching, training, and competitions.

There are numerous reasons why people aren’t comfortable riding on the open road. It is often intimidating and at times a dangerous place for the young or novice cyclist to gain confidence, learn new skills and improve fitness. The purpose of a CRC is to tackle these barriers by removing a reliance on the open road and provides a safe place to go on a regular basis during the day and evenings. And even where there is a rural network of quiet lanes and traffic free paths outside of towns and cities, these are mainly a resource for recreation, they are not always suitable for coaching and learning basic bike handling skills.

CRC’s are usually between 1km and 1.5km in length and to ‘the person on the street’ appears very much like a road circuit, although they are designed to British Cycling’s standards for daytime and evening use and can’t be used by vehicles. The circuits are often located to take advantage of existing facilities at nearby leisure centres and schools. CRC’s should be designed to be ‘active environments’ that attract children, young people, adults and the mature cyclist from across a wide catchment area.  Of course, it’s not all about the bike, in addition to cycling, other wheeled sports such as rollerblading, roller skiing, wheelchair sports can take place on the circuit, as well as running.

Through the £15m Sport England and British Cycling’s Places to Ride fund announced earlier this year there are opportunities to invest in transformational cycling facilities across England, and in Wales, Welsh Cycling and Sport Wales have been investing more funds into similar projects.

For several years Owen Davies Consulting has been preparing detailed feasibility, site option appraisals, business plan, funding strategies and masterplanning new CRC’s in England and Wales. Planning permission was granted in May 2017 for our first scheme in Hereford (prospectus link) and we are working on a new proposal for Abergavenny (see article) 

We are no ordinary consultants – on our days off we are qualified British Cycling coaches, cycling fans, racers and activists!

 

Improving Wind Street, Swansea’s Evening & Night Time District

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Swansea Council and Swansea BID (Business Improvement District) are moving forward with regeneration aspirations to improve the Wind Street pedestrian and business environment. The area provides a significant evening, night-time, leisure and entertainment focus for the City Centre, and provides an important pedestrian link between the City Centre and the waterfront.

Owen Davies Consulting & Element Urbanism’s proposals for Wind Street are out for consultation until 12th October.Wind Street Consultation Boards Print Version A3

Only on maps is it known as Wind Street – Regenerating Swansea’s evening and night time economy district

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Only on maps is it known as Wind Street. If you are from Swansea, the most lively and attractive street in the city centre is known as ‘Wine Street’. We think its derived from the original Welsh name for the area fused over time with the history of the area as a location for bars and wine merchants.

The area’s history runs deep, it has the highest concentration of listed building in Swansea, and a reputation for drinking and entertainment that includes the poet Dylan Thomas and notoriety from the Second World for a young GI and future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano flooring an antagonist.

As one of the very oldest streets in Swansea, it has seen many changes both to its layout and its building. It became a backwater in the second half of the 20th century when the commercial centre of Swansea shifted. However, it has continued to evolve and is now the beating centre of the vibrant evening and night time economy.

Wind Street is now known for its modern pubs, bars, clubs, and restaurants, as well as some of the oldest including the No-Sign Wine Bar. Whilst the areas reputation over the years has been linked with drunkenness and bad behaviour, today it has a very contemporary and relaxed feel to the area matched by its Purple Flag status.

In recent years, the pedestrianisation of Wind Street has been considered as a strategy to support the regeneration of the city centre and to strengthen its day, evening and night- time economy. Previous surveys and discussions have indicated that there is widespread support for this idea from local businesses and residents.

Owen Davies Consulting and Element Urbanism, have recently been appointed by Swansea Council and Swansea BID to take the next step to examine the feasibility of pedestrianisation in greater detail. We have just begun and are expected to be completed by April 2018.

Some of the key aspects of our work include:

  • There is an opportunity to create a physical and economic environment that addresses the day, evening and night time economies in equal measure. Wind Street can become more flexible and inspiring as a landmark and destination from the ‘day into night’
  • We need to consider a range of factors, some of which are non-physical, such as those relating to the way the street is regulated, managed and maintained.
  • The project should help create new economic opportunities through motivating businesses to become more creative, inspiring and ambitious with their day and night time operations
  • Design physical improvement that integrates with the rest of the city centre including the city centre regeneration framework, St David’s and the Castle Square redevelopments
  • Consider the importance of ‘symbolic capital’ and how to enhance its brand and character as part the city-wide ENTE, and that of a ‘happy, friendly, diverse, culturally rich city by the sea’.

Does it add up – are there too many student flats for Cardiff?

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Cardiff is experiencing an explosion in student accommodation, in the last few years there have been some 20 developments granted or expected to receive planning permission. Over 4,000 new flats coming on stream, including flats in what will become Wales’ tallest building.

The Press reported this week http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/second-student-flats-block-cardiff-13924531#ICID=sharebar_twitter  on a second block of student flats that wants permission for a change of use to let rooms to non-student due to the lack of demand. As reported, purpose-built student flats are often built to lower standards and cost less than open market residential flats and are usually require less onerous planning obligations.

This move by the landlord has been partly explained as a response to the completion of a development ahead (or possibly behind) schedule and the proposed temporary non-student occupancy is to ensure the flats do not remain empty until the beginning of the academic year next September/October 2018. This may be so, but there has been more than one scheme seeking or already with approval to change to non-student accommodation. At the same time, there have been clear statements of how difficult the student market conditions have become.

It will be interesting to see how successful and trouble free a temporary letting strategy will be for the landlords. It seems there is only enough time for a short-term lease of about 6 months if enough time is allowed to return and repair the flats ready for student arriving late summer 2018. This is likely to have limited appeal to general needs tenants, and may only appeal to social rent tenants and meet emergency housing needs. In a city with a large homeless and rough sleeping problem, these flats could serve a desperate housing problem, short-term. However, is this the type of risk the landlord is thinking of taking for their new flats? Is this an attempt to circumvent the normal planning scrutiny and build lower quality cheaper general needs accommodation? How quickly will short term lets become long term lets to attract a more mainstream tenant?

In a separate but related article, the BBC reported the dramatic decline in non-EU students attending Welsh University http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-42051492, this particularly hard-hitting as Wales that tends to have a disproportionately higher number of students from south Asia. Its known that foreign students look to rent self-contained flats, rather than other forms of shared student housing. From my own experience as a student living in Cardiff in the 1990’s, I can imagine how unattractive the traditional shared terraced student houses have become and a more modern product is required.

If we have hit ‘peak’ student accommodation in Cardiff, how will this affect the regeneration of the cities changing sky line? There is no doubt that the appetite for developing new student flats is helping to fuel the current wave of city development and regeneration across Cardiff’s city centre. Cardiff needs its vibrant and successful university sector and attracting the best students has to be underpinned by modern and vibrant city environment including good quality student accommodation. The city also needs more homes, striking the right balance in the type, quantity, and quality is the challenge.

Keep it Clean – Rocialle’s major sterilising investment in the Valleys

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There are only a small number of Ethylene Oxide (EtO) sterilising facilities in the UK of the scale proposed by Rocialle for their site in Mountain Ash, south Wales. With limited UK development experience and knowledge of the technology, making sure the new plant obtained planning permission meant we had to prove how safe the ETO facility would be, as well as dealing with the planning issues for the site and its surroundings.

For over thirty years, Rocialle has supplied healthcare providers with sterile and non-sterile consumable items, vital to patient care. During that time, Rocialle has become widely regarded by both clinical and commercial specialists with wide ranges of single use surgical instruments and medical packs, packed and sterilised at its facilities in Mountain Ash where it employs 350 people. At this site is situated one of the largest medical clean rooms in Europe, and an e-beam irradiation sterilisation plant !

The new multi-million pound ETO sterilising facility will be a major investment for Rocialle, it will help secure employment for employees at its Mountain Ash site for the long term. A large part of the new facility will be housed within the existing factory building, however there is a need to construct an ancillary unit next door. The design, scale and layout of the new building is determined by the specialist nature of the new plant it will house, the ETO plant is designed and manufactured by Sterimed in Switzerland.

Owen Davies Consulting advised Rocialle on the planning for the new plant and achieved full planning permission from Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC in September 2017. The most important planning issues concerned the design and height of the chimney stack to discharge the waste gasses, and satisfying the Authority that pollution control could be managed and the appropriate risk management systems were in place. The project is working to incredibly tight timescales for constructing and installing the new plant and building, and negotiating out any pre-commencement planning conditions was essential to achieving the overall project programme. For example, we dealt with drainage issues to the satisfaction of Officers and removed any potential planning condition that may have taken a couple of months to address.

Reimagining the Night Time Economy

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Night life for many of us was a rite of passage full of discovery, and life shaping moments. However, the Night Time Economy is no longer as we once remember it, there have been dramatic shifts in the industry, and this create challenges for regeneration and place management in our urban centres.

The presentation given at Regen 17 in Cardiff this week, asked three key questions

1 – The NTE is dynamic, important economically, socially & culturally, in a state of flux. Can policy makers & regulators do more to understand & support it?

2 – The NTE often claims its inconsistently or over regulated curbing commercial & creative activity. Is there a need for greater collaboration between NTE & place regulators, manager & makers ?

3- The recently adopted ‘Agent of Change’ principle for planning and new development  – is this really a panacea for the NTE?

The presentation includes reference to a project we have prepared and helping to deliver on behalf of the NTE businesses in Mill Lane, Cardiff.

If you would like to discuss the NTE, please get in touch

Regen 17 NTE Seminar

77 Chapel Road, Abergavenny, NP7 7DR
Why not call us first for a chat on 07809 594524
If you prefer then send an email to Owen Davies at owen@owendaviesconsulting.co.uk