Nearly three months ago I came up with a list of likely long-term changes that the Covid lockdown would bring about. I think all my points remain valid but, as I was essentially considering the impact on the licensed trade and the retail sector, something that I didn’t mention was the move from office-based to home working. Yet many commentators are now saying this may represent one of the most significant shifts in society that emerge from it, which will have many implications for the role of city centres.
It’s been widely observed that the recovery from the depths of the lockdown has had a somewhat Polo mint-shaped character. Many suburbs and smaller towns are not far off normal levels of activity, whereas city centres remain deathly quiet. There are various factors behind this. They are places where most of the footfall comes from people travelling in from outside rather than those living nearby. Non-essential shops were not allowed to reopen until the middle of June, which is only six weeks ago, and pubs, cafés and restaurants, which most people would see as an essential part of a shopping trip, came three weeks later. At the same time, compulsory face masks were imposed on public transport, which people are much more likely to use to reach city centres, while they will travel more locally by car. And forcing people to wear masks in shops will make that day out shopping in the West End even less appealing. Plus the level of tourism, both international and domestic, has fallen off a cliff, and tourist attractions are only just reopening.
But undoubtedly the move from office to home has been by far the single biggest factor driving this. This has often been foretold, but has never really happened, but this time it really does seem to be different. It suits employers, as they can potentially save a lot on office rents, and it suits employees, as they are able to avoid the daily grind and cost of commuting. The wider implications for how workplaces function are really beyond the remit of this blog, and it does have to be said that successful home working may be reliant to a large extent on the social capital previously built up in offices, and employees are likely eventually to feel isolated and miss the social aspects of office life. But it is likely that many employers will adopt a system of only expecting employees to come into the office for one or two days a week rather than five, which obviously will have a huge impact in the amount of office space required, and the number of people present at any one time in city centres.
This will have profound implications for major policy areas such as land use planning and the expansion of public transport capacity. It will also affect housing demand, as there will be less need to actually live close to your place of work. And it will impact on a wide range of businesses operating in city centres that service the work-based economy – cafés, restaurants, sandwich shops, convenience stores, dry cleaners, hairdressers and all kinds of general retail outlets that workers use in their lunch breaks or on their way to and from the office. Some of this demand will be taken up by businesses closer to where people live – after all, everybody has to eat – but some is likely to disappear entirely. Although written from an American perspective, this is a very relevant article about how the relative attractions of city and small town are changing.
And one area that is likely to be particularly affected is pubs and bars. Nowadays, the centres of large towns and cities are one of the few locations where pubs really thrive. While lunchtime drinking is now much more frowned upon, there remains a strong demand for the after-work pint, with the streets outside central London pubs often being crowded with drinkers in the early evening. Very often, city workers go on directly to evening activities rather than going home first. And pub visits are often prompted by a desire to meet up with colleagues, and people from other workplaces, outside the office environment. If everyone is isolated at home, the attractions of wandering down the local at six o’clock will be much less. That is, if you even have a local, while in city centres there are pubs to suit every taste. So the death, or at least the severe diminution, of office culture is likely to have a seismic, and largely negative, effect on the pub landscape.