Francis Salway: London’s built environment is key to its recovery

Francis Salway: London’s built environment is key to its recovery

When London went into lockdown on 23 March 2020, the streets became deserted. Over the following months, data showed that the capital was the UK city that suffered the greatest decline in footfall in its central areas. For many of us, the buildings where we had spent our professional lives closed overnight.

At first I thought this would blow over and life around the city would be back to normal in a short while. But as time moved on it became apparent that the regular shoppers of Oxford Street were no longer browsing rails but swiping tablets to make a purchase.

Fast forward two years and a lot has changed. Online sales have soared, food delivery services have become a household staple and working from home, at least some of the time, has moved into the mainstream. The environment in which we live, work and socialise, and our relationship with the city has been transformed.

That’s why London First has established a Place Commission, composed of leading businesses in the capital and backed by research and analysis by Deloitte, to answer the question: How should London’s built environment evolve to help people thrive and business to succeed?” As chair of the group, my task is to bring voices together from across multiple sectors, such as SEGRO, Arup, Grosvenor, Legal & General and Imperial College, to produce a new vision for London as a place – a city, post-pandemic, where our buildings and places make a positive difference to London, Londoners and how we now live and work. 

Our built environment – buildings, places and supporting infrastructure – is often overlooked and taken for granted. However, it is the backbone of our city and vital to helping people thrive and for supporting economic success. The pandemic has prompted some of the highest levels of change in the use of buildings since the de-industrialisation of the UK in the 1980s.

How well these changes of use are managed will be critical to how attractive and productive the city becomes. The move to remote working has called into question previously accepted analyses of cities, particularly that proximity and density of talent spur innovation and the further growth of cities. If proximity can be achieved virtually – in other words, online – we may need to adjust current assumptions about the drivers of success for cities.

There are many unknowns. London’s population fell slightly during the pandemic – for the first time in over 30 years. Is there a risk that this trend will continue or can we assume a reversion to long-term growth in population? And there are many other issues to address: sustainability, secure and green energy provision, employee wellbeing, productivity and changing consumer patterns. 

What is clear is that a successful global city such as London needs to recognise the extent of change in its response – and that we have agency in this process. Businesses working in partnership with London and the national government can forge a post-Covid built environment that benefits all. We know that a UK recovery must include a London recovery and, therefore, that London can play its part in showcasing the future and spreading growth across the country.

As well as chairing the London First Place Commission, Francis Salway chairs the Town and Country Housing Group.

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