Column by the leader of South Gloucestershire Council, Toby Savage.

The COVID-19 virus has put rocket boosters onto what was already an alarming decline of the traditional High Street. Not only will we have seen a significant shift to online shopping, but many people, particularly those who are vulnerable, are scared to go out and will remain so for some time.

Given how central our high streets are to our communities, there is a huge amount of effort going into how we take the bold action that we need to help support our high streets to safely re-open for trade.

As we look to a near-term future returning to as normal life as possible, while maintaining social distancing to minimise the risk of further spreading the COVID-19 virus, South Gloucestershire Council and the West of England Combined Authority are preparing to invest significantly in our high streets. This will be vital for local jobs, not to mention mental health and wellbeing, as people are keen to get back to work and, in ways that keep us all safe, be out and about supporting local businesses, many of which have shown creativity and innovation in support of their communities throughout lockdown.

We are preparing for the easing of restrictions on non-essential retail throughout June, which is why we are keen to act now. We will work closely with businesses and retailers, so that people can be encouraged back to the high street and be reassured that their safety is being designed into the experience.

Our high streets will look and feel different if they are to thrive in the weeks and months ahead. We will need to allow shops, restaurants and cafes to trade outside immediately in front of their premises. We will need to provide extra space for locals to get around safely and be able to maintain social distancing, whether on foot or by bike. And because there is only so much total space available, it means that on-street road space for cars will need to reduce. But we, of course, will continue to maintain our network of council car parks and their associated free parking.

As we plan to emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak stronger and in closer touch with our communities, it is vital that we put our High Streets at the heart of our recovery.