As the vaccine roll-out gathers pace, attention is gradually shifting to the horizon and what’s next for our cities.
Alongside this week’s sombre milestone on COVID deaths, and news that 8% of Londoners have already left the capital, there is an emerging debate about whether the city will ultimately swing back to being a thriving centre for work or risk becoming a ‘Gotham City’, as Minister for London Paul Scully MP has warned, ‘deserted apart from those with the means to insulate themselves from infection, and those with no choice’. While it is true that London will be required to re-formulate itself into a safe, sustainable and technologically-enabled place to work, it is equally true that, to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of the death of London are greatly exaggerated.
London is after all a living organism that can and will adapt to its circumstances. Having proven resilience to previous crises such as the global financial crash and the Brexit vote, London’s character, global potential and ‘infrastructure of fun’ (such as restaurants, bars, clubs and galleries) are essential to urban recovery, in the words of Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser. The draw of London as a post-COVID workplace will become increasingly compelling as more of us are vaccinated and working-from-home fatigue reaches its peak. Bank chiefs added their voices to the choir this week, stressing that working from home is not a sustainable option, and the FT welcomed in a new ‘Roaring Twenties’ of ‘strong growth and social ebullience’ parallel but wiser to that which occurred in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic. Social interaction, surprise and diversion are human needs, and as soon as it is safe to do so the city’s magnetic quality is likely to again attract the investment and talent it has previously enjoyed. Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, acknowledged that, while there is ‘power’ in the distributed, or hub and spoke, model, ‘London will always be a core centre’.
A number of investors are optimistic and point towards a strong market, in particular for high-quality assets; Savills’ Head of European Commercial Research Mat Oakley, for example, believes that fundamental demand will remain high, as in this recent period ‘London offices investment was about £5bn… (essentially) the same number for Q4 each of the last three years’. New ways of working such as day offices, hub and spoke locations and corporate clubhouses will support London’s shift to being a truly hybrid workplace, as will the introduction of agility packages. Such packages allow businesses to tailor their workplace contract to meet their specific needs, whether that’s one day in an office per month plus four days in meeting rooms, co-working and lounge access, or something entirely different. Ultimately, it is this kind of flexibility that will set the tone for London’s future and enable it to bounce back successfully.
This third lockdown is no death knell for our capital but rather a cue to remind us of the value of city living, with all its creativity, chance meetings, and capacity for pleasure. While significant changes are required for us to see out a sustainable, liveable future, London is still a magnet for innovation and joy at its core. It is up to us to protect and rally for this special place and ensure it has the workplace renaissance it deserves.