The usual suspects were out in force to condemn Sadiq Khan’s trip to the US to promote international tourism and encourage investment as a “taxpayer-funded jolly”. But “banging the drum” for London is a big part of any Mayor’s job description, and with rival cities already boosting their promotional budgets it’s arguable that the capital should have been doing even more.
Before Covid, London was a global visitor hotspot. Tourism accounted for around one in five jobs in the city and contributed almost 12 per cent of its GDP. Some three million people came to London the US alone in 2019, spending £2.45 billion while they were here.
The pandemic hit the trade hard. Spending by international visitors in London fell by £7.4 billion in 2020, with knock-on ill effects for the rest of the UK, because those who come to the capital from overseas often travel further afield as well. London needs those visitors back, as well as domestic tourists. It was important for the Mayor to get behind that drive. Even with the enticements of the Platinum Jubilee, London, the third most visited city on the planet pre-pandemic, cannot rest on its laurels, and that’s not just about advertising.
In this context, spare a thought for two recent initiatives that came to grief. Westminster Council’s much-maligned Marble Arch Mound, though poorly implemented and over budget, still attracted some 250,000 people to the struggling West End. And the Tulip, the rejected 305-metre viewing platform in the heart of the Square Mile, was forecast to attract 1.2 million visitors a year, which would have help to shift the focus of the traditional office quarter and reach beyond the nine to five.
There is a need for change. Last month the Financial Times reported London office occupancy at around 25 per cent of capacity, and travel by London Underground to the Square Mile still down by about half compared with pre-pandemic levels. Hybrid working looks to be here to stay, with weekday Tube ridership overall around 65 per cent of what it was pre-Covid.
Diversifying the City is firmly on the agenda of the City of London Corporation. Newly-elected policy chief Chris Hayward said last week: “We must make a compelling case to encourage people to work, visit and play in the Square Mile as flexible and hybrid patterns of working evolve.”
What is true of the Square Mile is true of the Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the West End, the City and Canary Wharf – as a whole. A report last year for City Hall from Arup and the London School of Economics warned that if home working remained the norm and “no further action is taken”, the impact on the CAZ could be 86,000 jobs lost and a £36 billion hit to the London economy over the course of a decade.
It concluded that central London was well placed to recover, with a world-leading tech sector and its arts and cultural offer – exactly what Khan was promoting on his Stateside trip – but that doing so would require action beyond a tourism drive, making the city centre more “sustainable, healthy and green”, with more attractive outdoor spaces, better for walking and cycling, more arts and cultural activity, and more residents.
Faced with this challenge, the ingredients are coming into place. The London First business group last week launched its Place Commission to look at how the capital’s built environment should evolve post-Covid, with a timely warning that “without intervention and the creation of a new plan for London’s built environment, there is a risk of London falling behind its international counterparts”.
The central zone’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are contributing too, promoting projects including the part-pedestrianisation of the Strand and walking and cycling-friendly schemes across the area, while Camden Council has overseen the transformation “from pavement to park” of Alfred Place off Tottenham Court Road. And the Centre for London think tank has argued convincingly in favour of increasing the number of people living in the CAZ (currently standing at some 360,000).
Finding the right balance isn’t easy. Westminster Council’s new Labour administration has focused on the often overlooked and genuine concerns of residents, meaning those calling for the swift return of al fresco dining in Soho and a car-free Oxford Street may have to wait, as On London reported before the recent local elections. It would help if the government wasn’t looking the other way, most obviously over support for Transport for London, a key part of any recovery package. TfL’s latest short-term funding support runs out in six weeks’ time, with no sign yet of a long-term deal.
Khan went down well in the US. Rather than criticising a Mayor for speaking up for the city overseas, shouldn’t we be getting behind a similar drive back home?
Image from Mayor of London’s Twitter feed.
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