The soaring growth of online sales has been blamed for the apparently terminal decline of the high street. Many people conduct their weekly and festive shopping from the comfort of an armchair.
With millions of staff still working from home, many offices have become sparsely populated, triggering a debate about the future of our town and city centres.
So it’s heartening to highlight a story which appears to swim against the tide, but actually highlights a universal truth. Until recently, Leah’s Yard in Sheffield seemed to epitomise the crisis facing many of our city centres.
Once a bustling hive of micro-industry, the listed Victorian workshops had deteriorated to such an extent that they featured on Historic England’s ‘Building at Risk’ register.
Now the yard is about to be reborn and more than 100 small businesses are battling for the right to establish a base there.
Proposals to revive historic Leah’s Yard on Cambridge Street and create a social hub for creative independent businesses have been approved by local planners.
Once completed, Leah’s Yard will be run by Tom Wolfenden, CEO of SSPCo, which manages the Cooper Buildings on Arundel Street, and James O’Hara of the Rockingham Group, which runs bars such as Public and Picture House Social.
Mr Wolfenden said: “We’re going to have 30 spaces in Leah’s Yard and we have had 106 applications for space so far, so there is clearly a disconnect with the current commercial property market.”
What Mr Wolfenden has uncovered is pent-up demand from Sheffield’s thriving, small independent firms who need physical space – good old reliable bricks and mortar – to take their enterprise to the next level.
Mr O’Hara said: “Ten years ago, you would have started with a physical store, and developed your online offering. I think the reverse is happening now.
“Someone is developing a business, getting an online following, but then people still want a physical place that people can go to.
“There will always be, despite the well-publicised decline in retail, space for experiential retail; things you can’t get online.”
With vision and tenacity, historic spaces like Leah’s Yard can help to breathe life into city centres and challenge the depressing narrative which tells us the only way is down for bricks and mortar. Many businesses created on a kitchen table will need more space as they keep growing and not every retailer can show the true value of its goods online.
People are still social animals who need, to quote a well know commercial property CEO, to be fed, watered and entertained.
Perhaps the most glorious illustration of these points can be found at the Piece Hall, an architectural masterpiece of Venetian splendour in the heart of Calderdale.
After years of decline, The Piece Hall Trust has attracted more than 40 independent retailers and hospitality businesses to a commercial space that dates from the 18th century.
Since its renovation in 2017, The Piece Hall has generated around £26m for the local economy. Even a pandemic could not knock it off course.
I don’t seek to downplay the seismic shift in consumer habits.
The high street of the 1970s, with its cluster of independents living cheek by jowl with global giants, will never return. Walk around any town or city and you will soon mourn the absence of familiar names.
The pandemic, which forced many small businesses to close for lengthy periods, still casts a cloud.
But it would be foolish to dismiss the case for providing additional work and retail space, especially as projects like Leah’s Yard shows there is powerful demand from micro businesses who dream of at least renting their own small kingdom of bricks and mortar.
Leah’s Yard is an oasis of hope in a landscape frequently pock-marked with failure. It could force the prophets of doom to revise their texts.