As London and other English city centres empty out once more, The London Conference has been pondering the future of London’s centre and suburbs.
On Monday night, Harvard academic Edward Glaeser gave his prognosis (a tough few years, but bounce back as long as we get on top of pandemics in the longer term), and on Tuesday, London’s future economic geography was debated by Minister for London Paul Scully MP, Vidhya Alakeson from Power to Change, Leader of Waltham Forest Cllr Clare Coghill and Paul Williams from Westminster Property Association.
The big question was when and to what extent economic, social and cultural activity would return to the city centre. Would the centre bounce back, or would it become a Gotham City, as Paul Scully had previously speculated, deserted apart from those with the means to insulate themselves from infection, and those with no choice. Once restrictions are relaxed, he argued, employers who chose to keep staff home indefinitely couldn’t expect central London to stay the same without them.
Nevertheless, the speakers were cautious about writing off central London. Paul Williams highlighted its resilience to previous crises such as the global financial crash and the Brexit vote, though Vidhya Alakeson argued that the change in behaviour triggered by the crisis would have a longer-lasting impact on the way people work, calling into question the concentration of commercial space in the city centre and enabling more community ownership in high streets. More mixing could help both the centre and the suburbs, said Clare Coghill, particularly if more Londoners could take advantage of the opportunities the city offered.
The future is of course unknowable, though the longer the crisis goes on, the less simple it will be for London simply to snap back to how it operated before. But remodelling needn’t mean decline for centre or suburbs. London’s business centres could open up to more start-ups (as the City Fringe did in the 1990s), or to an even bigger workforce splitting their time between socialised work in offices and more solitary tasks at home, or to more young people who could live and work in areas from which previous generations were priced out, while older people commute less but further. And suburbs could benefit from a richer mix of uses during the day – from workspaces, to community-owned businesses, to shops and services supporting the new work-life balance.
The challenge for London will be to allow these unknowable changes to take place, while retaining the character of the city, its global potential and the ‘infrastructure of fun’ – restaurants, bars, clubs and galleries – that Edward Glaeser suggested would be essential to urban recovery. As our West End Recovery Plan set out, these assets underpin the UK’s soft power and anchor London’s offer to tourists, businesses and UK residents alike. And they will be essential to its recovery.