Revisiting Brick Lane: The impact of Covid-19 on an ethnically diverse high street

This 2021 project report studies the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Brick Lane in London’s East End – an ethnically diverse high street. It assesses how Brick Lane businesses, and the people working within them, have fared during the multiple lockdowns during the pandemic. The study finds businesses - particularly restaurants - have struggled, and the crisis has further exacerbated existing inequalities for BAME communities.

Date added 30 November 2021
Last updated 30 November 2021

This 2021 project report studies the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Brick Lane in London’s East End – an ethnically diverse high street. It begins by outlining the importance of local high streets to people’s livelihoods and local communities, and that they also possess the ability to reflect population, social and cultural change. Yet, as the authors note, high streets have been under pressure for some time due to the rise in online shopping, out-of-town retail and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic – the focus of this report.

As the report suggests, the crisis has also revealed and exacerbated longstanding ethnic inequalities in terms of high street employment, given ethnic minority groups are concentrated in sectors particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, such as food and hospitality. For example, the authors outline how “the retail industry employs the second-largest number of members of ethnic minorities after health and social care”; whilst, “over 30% of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are employed in the food and hospitality sectors”. It has also been reported in February 2021 that unemployment rates have been twice as high for BAME employees, further demonstrating these employment-based inequalities.

Based on face-to-face surveys and interviews with businesses, shop and restaurant owners on Brick Lane, the report outlines the key challenges they have faced during the multiple lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. The following key findings are reported:

  • As of April 2021, 29% of shops on Brick Lane were closed, compared to 9% in 2019 (although some of these have since reopened).
  • Many of the shops still open were operating under reduced operating hours in April 2021.
  • Restaurants were particularly badly impacted by the pandemic, with the number of Indian restaurants on Brick Lane reducing from 35 in 2014, to 18 restaurants and 4 cafes in 2021.
  • Staff working in the businesses struggled to survive on the reduced salaries due to becoming furloughed.
  • Some restaurants experimented with online food deliveries but there were issues with the high costs of this rendering it unsustainable (e.g. use of Deliveroo).

The report concludes by providing several recommendations on revitalising Brick Lane:

  • Social impact assessments should be carried out for any large-scale development and gentrification to ensure they do not lead to further inequalities.
  • The Borough Council should work with local communities to ensure the local identity, ethnic heritage, and character of the high street is not decimated.
  • The unique local businesses should be promoted further through events, such as the Brick Lane Curry Festival.
  • Businesses require further support from government around high rents and business rates.