Lots of thinking and talking are going on about how London might change as a result of the pandemic, including its streets and places of work. What would a “new normal” be like? How would it be manifested in local neighbourhoods and areas with lots of offices? How different from the old normal would it be? Will the post-Covid capital end up being not much different at all?
Luisa Porritt, the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Mayor, is among those convinced the difference will be significant. Two of her flagship policies are headlined “Homes in the Heart of the City” and “Reinvent the High Street“, both of them founded in the view that, in her campaign website’s words, “Covid-19 will change our city forever”. What makes Porritt so sure?
Where working habits are concerned, she subscribes to the view that there will be no turning back from the acceleration of trends that were already underway, principally a move to more flexible working, including from home. “I’m sure people will want to meet again in person, and I’m not saying it will be a wholesale shift. But this shock event has forced employers to have employees working from home,” she says. “Lots of businesses now see the advantages of that and that it can work in practice.”
She thinks a new “hybrid model” of locations for work will “lead to less demand for office space in London than what we saw before the pandemic.” Her solution to making use of the spare office capacity she anticipates is to have it converted into places to live: “This is a once in a generation opportunity for the Mayor to lead on transforming some of that space, where appropriate, into quality, affordable, zero carbon homes.”
The aspiration is one thing, realising it is, of course, another. Offices are owned by companies, and they could have other ideas for whatever vacant space they might have on their hands. Already, controversial permitted development rights enable conversions of buildings from office use to residential without planning permission being required, sometimes with unaffordable and undesirable outcomes. Those rights could yet be extended.
Porritt says she is opposed to “the sort of free-for-all for developers that the Conservatives are planning”. But the Conservatives are in power nationally. What is Porritt’s way round that problem? “Given this unique set of circumstances, the time is right for the Mayor to demand special powers from government to lead that change,” she says.
She acknowledges that making such a case to the larger powers upstream would require working with Central London local authorities (none of which are run by Lib Dems) and also Business Improvement Districts, the influential bodies representing businesses in local areas. But she believes doing so will be imperative.
“We’ve got to recognise that special role that Central London plays,” Porritt says. “We’ve had a housing crisis for too long in London and we can’t just leave these areas to languish. I want to stimulate demand and breathe new life into the centre of London.”
Such a revitalisation implies a broader shift towards a wider mix of uses for buildings and within areas where offices predominate, with changes reflecting a greater residential presence. And Porritt believes a parallel diversification of struggling high streets right across the capital can refresh them too, again by responding positively to embrace a working culture already transformed by Covid.
“We’ve moved away from reliance on a purely retail model,” she says. “Retail will, of course, still be part of the mix. But I think we’re going to be seeing our high streets being much more mixed-use in future. The Mayor should be leading that change and that process for London.” She anticipates movement to meet new local demands: the provision of business and services that local communities will want more of as a result of “this home-working revolution”.
Porritt has younger employees much in mind. “We know that young people in particular don’t necessarily live in conditions where it’s that easy to work from home,” she says. “They might have been confined to working in their bedroom over the course of the pandemic because they share their other spaces. That’s why having a co-working space they can go to locally, rather than going in to a big office in the centre of London every day, is going to help address that”.
A more localised London workforce would have other benefits too, Porritt believes: less stressful, over-crowded commuting and more short-distance sustainable travelling, with helpful effects on the environment. Fostering and managing such change is very much the home territory of local government as well as a strategic concern of City Hall, and Porritt cites Lib Dem-run Sutton Council as showing the way to go about it by purchasing vacated high street properties and letting the space to new enterprises, occupying it itself, or both.
Porritt sees such initiatives and pandemic-driven change as very much in tune with the bedrock Lib Dem commitment to localism. However, national planning policies will always form the wider framework for London’s local and regional government planning powers – ask Sadiq Khan how all that has played out with his new London Plan – and Robert Jenrick’s latest proposals have set alarm bells ringing across the party spectrum and beyond.
At a recent meeting of the London Assembly’s planning and regeneration committee, Tony Devenish, Tory AM for West Central, Labour’s planning policy specialist Nicky Gavron, Michael Bach of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies and others were united in their concern about what Jenrick has in mind. The unifying fear is that unregulated conversion of shops to housing will deaden high streets of every kind further. Such a trend could limit the scope for the sorts of enlivening changes Porritt wants to see.
Behind all of this – all that thinking and talking, and contributions to the debate such as the Lib Dem candidate’s – a clear picture of how London’s streets and workplaces and its employers and employees have been changed by the pandemic, and to what degree, can still be hard to discern.
For example, last October, major retailer John Lewis secured permission to convert 45 per cent of its Oxford Street store to office space. And last month, while announcing it is to reduce its office space around the world by 40 per cent, the HSBC bank said its big Canary Wharf office will be full again once the vaccination programme is complete. The City of London Corporation has given consent for three major new office developments already this year. Yet Lloyds bank has said it is preparing for “a permanently changed future” after a survey of staff found that over three-quarters of them would like to work from home at least three days a week.
It is tempting to conclude that the settled state of post-Covid London is still, for now, anyone’s guess. Luisa Porritt will be hoping that by 6 May, her current prediction of the near future will be looking like it’s coming true.
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