Mayor commissions new research as Central London economy faces ‘existential threat’

Mayor commissions new research as Central London economy faces ‘existential threat’

Sadiq Khan has launched a new probe into the challenges faced by Central London due to Covid-19 amid forecasts of an impending unemployment crisis in the capital and warnings from a senior deputy of an “existential threat” to the heart of the city if workers and visitors stay away.

The Mayor has commissioned wide-ranging research, which will draw on a City Hall survey of business and workplace capacity under social distancing rules that is already underway.

The research will focus on London’s Central Activities Zone, which includes the West End, along with the Isle of Dogs financial hub. These areas collectively generated a staggering £228 billion in economic output in 2017 – half of London’s total and a tenth of all UK output within an area amounting to just 0.01% of the country – but they have been recovering more slowly than other places.

Safe reopening of the West End is a “particular and urgent problem”, Khan’s policy director Nick Bowes told yesterday’s meeting of the London Recovery Board, the multi-agency grouping set up to address the economic and social revival of the capital

As well as overseeing the new research project, the board’s agenda includes action across eight agreed “missions”, around health, digital access, jobs, tackling climate change, supporting the capital’s high streets, financial and social security, a “new deal” for young Londoners and backing for community mutual aid.

Last week, Jules Pipe, Khan’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills told the London Assembly’s Economy Committee that “the centre will die without people in it,” describing the collapse in footfall as the “key issue”. Calling for a continuation of short-term government support, he said “the existential threat is that many of the key things that make London what it is rely on 90% of [normal] turnover and footfall to be viable”.

“The Mayor has campaigns persuading people public transport is safe,” Pipe said, “but overwhelmingly the issue is the capacity of office spaces. Until we solve the issue of social distancing in offices you are shouting into the wind telling people to come back.”

Pipes concerns were echoed by retail and hospitality business representatives. Hotels, restaurants, conference, event and other hospitality businesses are particularly at risk because the period up to Christmas and the New Year generate a large proportion of their revenue, UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls told AMs. 

With business and most international tourist travel curtailed, hotels are operating at 20% of their capacity and bringing in only 20% of usual revenue, she said, while revenue in pubs, bars and restaurants remained around half of pre-crisis levels. “It’s not sustainable in the long-term,” Nicholls warned.

Dominic Curran, the British Retail Consortium’s property adviser, said Central London footfall is still down by around 50%, with many businesses already hit by high business rates. 

Transport for London passenger numbers yesterday suggested a slow improvement in public transport usage, with Tube ridership up 6% but still at just 33% of pre-crisis levels. Data derived from navigation app Waze showed road congestion in Outer London at higher levels than this time last year, while at the same time congestion in Inner London remains well below.

The Recovery Board backed business in calling on government to extend business rates relief and target support for jobs in the retail, hospitality, leisure and creative businesses, including retaining tax-free shopping for EU nationals, alongside beefed-up messaging on safe travel, increased virus testing and renewed campaigns promoting the capital.

The City Hall research will be completed by the end of the year, with Bowes confirming that policy proposals would be brought forward while the research was underway. Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of business lobby organisation London First, warned that time was short. “There’s a huge urgency about this,” she said. “We might not have anything left to recover.”

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