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The true extent of the pandemic on Canterbury city centre shown by the number of empty units

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Original article from Kent Live

It's no secret that high streets have been struggling over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Multiple lockdowns and social distancing measures have made it tough for businesses to make profit, resulting in the closure of several popular high street brands.

The government have promised to invest in measures to rejuvenate Britain's high streets, with housing secretary Robert Jenrick pledging to bring new life to town centres in Kent during a recent visit to Tunbridge Wells

Read more: High streets could see 17,000 new stores open over the next year

Recent reports suggest that local high streets could see 17,000 new stores open over the next 12 months as retailers look to take advantage of new hybrid working models.

Barclays Corporate Banking found that consumers have returned to physical stores with confidence since restrictions began to ease, with 68 per cent saying they have felt safe, or very safe, to return to the high street.

There were plenty of people about which suggests business may be picking up again

While there has been a boom in online shopping during the pandemic, 40 per cent of shoppers said they plan to increase their in-store spending, which could see businesses investing in more physical shops.

But is it too little too late for Kent's high streets?

We took a trip to Canterbury to assess the impact of the pandemic as the UK makes it way out of the coronavirus crisis.

Canterbury's main shopping area stretches from St Peter's Street to the High Street, with stores also occupying the areas just off these roads, such as the Guildhall and Old Buttermarket.

At first glance St Peter's Street doesn't appear to have been too badly affected, with hoards of people milling around the various shops and restaurants.

Canterbury's High Street has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic

But looking beyond the crowds, it becomes apparent that several units along the stretch of shops sit empty.

At an estimate, for every three or four occupied shops, there is an empty one.

As St Peter's Street merges into the High Street, the impact of the pandemic becomes more obvious – with several huge commercial units lying empty.

The site of former department stores Debenhams and Nasons stick out like a sore thumb amongst the other businesses due to the expansive nature of the empty buildings.

The former Debenhams site sticks out like a sore thumb

Likewise, Poundworld Plus, which occupied a significant stretch of the road, now sits empty.

It's clear that Canterbury City Council has made a conscious effort to disguise the unoccupied units by decorating the exterior with images of Canterbury's thriving areas and signs pointing in the direction of independent businesses.

In fact, independent businesses seem to be taking the lead in Canterbury's hospitality and retail trade.

Canterbury City Council have made a conscious effort to disguise the empty buildings with signage

The majority of empty shops were previously occupied by chains, which is perhaps indicative of how shoppers' allegiance has changed over the course of the pandemic.

We counted at least 15 empty shops along the stretch of St Peter's Street and the High Street alone.

Whilst Just Eat stickers and coffee signs suggested that one or two were previously occupied by eateries, the majority of empty shops had either been travel agents or more obscure businesses.

Travel agents were amongst the businesses impacted the worst by the pandemic

Empty shops we spotted during our visit included Sta Travel, a vape store, Eyebrow Corner, Thomas Cook and a nail bar.

Despite the struggles faced by the hospitality business over the course of the pandemic, they seem to have returned with a resurgence of custom.

The streets of Canterbury were crowded with people making the most of the September heatwave – enjoying a coffee or a bite to eat in the sun.

Canterbury's eateries appear to be thriving

While a number of shops in Canterbury still remain empty, there's hope for the future.

The high street might not return to how it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

There was room for improvement before coronavirus hit and the pandemic has opened up opportunities for smaller, independent businesses to thrive.

KentLive approached a spokesman for Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District (BID) but they declined to comment before publication.

The changing face of Kent's high streets is something to look forward to over the coming months and years.

Original Article