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Inverness traders pay the price of the coronavirus pandemic

By Val Sweeney

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City centre traders are missing out on revenue as officer workers are encouraged to continue working from home.
City centre traders are missing out on revenue as officer workers are encouraged to continue working from home.

Traders in Inverness city centre stand to lose an estimated £15 million if office workers are still encouraged to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

That was the stark warning from a leading local economist as yet another bitter blow was announced for the local economy.

Bosses at Eden Court today called off of this winter’s money-spinning pantomime.

The loss to the theatre is estimated to be £350,000 but the broader local economy will take another massive hit.

Businesses already reeling from the effects of lockdown – shops and the hospitality sector, including cafés, bars and restaurants – will also miss out from the spin-off benefits from the influx of visitors to the Highland capital.

City-based economist Tony Mackay said he was not optimistic about the next few months and predicted further falls in consumer spending as the furlough scheme ends next month.

He also forecast a large rise in unemployment in the Highlands.

He said one supermarket close to the city centre had already reported a major reduction in office workers using the store since the start of lockdown.

And he expects that to be repeated elsewhere in Inverness as major organisations such as Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Natural Heritage, plus private sector professional firms of all sizes adopted a working from home policy or continued to furlough staff.

The shift to online shopping, exacerbated by lockdown, would also have an influence on spending in the city centre and its retail parks, Mr Mackay said.

“I walk past the Highland Council headquarters car park most days and on Friday there were only about 10 cars in the rear car park compared with the usual 200,” he said.

“There has undoubtedly been an adverse impact on shops, cafés, restaurants and other businesses in the city centre.”

Reports from Belfast, where only five per cent of office and other staff have returned to work, suggest it has cost the city up to £200 million.

Mr Mackay estimated equivalent figures for Inverness would result in a £10-£15 million loss to businesses.

But it could bring good news for smaller communities.

“I think what we will get is some geographical redistribution. I go to Fortrose once a week and going to the local shops there, they feel they have done very well out of lockdown. If you live in Fortrose, or Cromarty or Dingwall and are not commuting to Inverness, you are going to spend more money locally,” he suggested.

“The impact has been a geographical redistribution away from Inverness to the smaller towns and villages.

“Nevertheless, I am not optimistic about the next few months. I believe that once the furlough scheme and other assistance measures end, there will be a large rise in unemployment, and that consequently there will be further falls in consumer spending both in Inverness and elsewhere.”

Eden Court chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman, said the decision not to go ahead with this year’s pantomime would have a large financial impact.

“Nearly one-third of the profit comes from those weeks at Christmas,” he said.

“It is not just ticket income. It is everything around it – the tiaras, sweets, all the food and drink.

“The other thing I am brutally aware of is the impact on the wider economy.”

Last year’s panto, Beauty and the Beast, was the theatre’s most successful ever, bringing more than 36,000 people to the venue over its 51 performances.

Richard Comfort, owner of Comfort Foods in Church Street and the Castle Restaurant in Castle Street, said he had noticed a difference in trade, with the volume of soup alone sold to city centre workers at lunchtimes in Comfort Foods down by almost 50 per cent.

“Before you would have 30 to 40 workers coming in over a lunchtime, just for soup alone, and that’s just not happening any more,” he said.

The Castle Restaurant had also been affected, he added.

“The tourism side has been there for a little bit of August, but it’s not been anything like it was,” he said.

“But it’s more concerning going forward and wondering what’s going to happen in the winter months when we are back to just the locals.”

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