Thursday 7 January 2021

Is there a future for the post covid Apocalypse London

Do you love London? If you don't, then I suggest that you don't bother with this particular blog. If however, like me, you love London with a passion, then I implore you to give some thought to the points I am going to make. My good friend Mr Mark Amies had a book published last year called London's Industrial Past. It is a fantastic book that really brings home how London changed over the period of about 50 year from being a dynamic industrial powerhouse, to a post industrial society based around services and shopping. What Mark wrote about happened over a period of about 50 years. London is about to change again, beyond recognition and that change will happen in the space of about two years. I believe that we are in year zero of the post covid world and the damage that this disease has done to the London we know and love has not even started to emerge.

Let me start by saying why I live in this City. There are several reasons, I was born and raised here. I call it home. I have a great group of friends that as with any reasonably sociable dweller in a cosmopolitan metropolis, is constantly evolving. When I left school, this was a large white north London born crowd, with English, Irish and Jewish connections in the main. Through work, music and football, this group now includes people from the four corners of the world. In normal times, a normal week might include a gig, a trip out for a meal, a couple of visits to a local pub, a trip into town to meet former work colleagues or friends at a city pub, maybe a visit to the Theatre. At the weekend, I might take in some non league football at Hadley, or if Manchester City are in town a trip to a Premiership stadium (if I am feeling very adventurous, a trip to Manchester). On a Thursday I'll play five a side at Powerleague and would have a beer with the boys after. I have many friends who work in the city of London, so at least once or twice a month I'll be meeting some for beer and a curry. Living in Mill Hill, we have a handy train service to West Hampstead, Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Farringdon and Blackfriars, so if myself and my wife are bored, we might hop on a train to any of these destinations for food/drink/both. 

If we have friends in towm, from Blackfriars, the Tate Modern, Shakespeares Globe Theatre and Borough Market are a short walk, these are great places to visit. As for music, we love The Roundhouse, The Dublin Castle and the Jazz Cafe in Camden, Ronnie Scotts in Soho and the 100 club in Oxford Street, as well as a plethora of other smaller venues. The train and tube system makes all of these accessible. For each, there is a favoured pre gig meeting place, either a pub or restaurant.

As I said, that is in normal times. All of that more or less came to a juddering halt last March. If you deconstruct all of this for the post covid world, it is quite hard to see how the jigsaw can be re-assembled. Of course the local friendship groups will survive, but I fully expect our locality to lose some of our favourite restaurants and pubs. A business simply cannot survive for months on end with the doors closed. Even if the establishment is still hanging on, many will lose valued staff, both front of house and in the kitchen. On top of covid, Brexit has meant that many European staff have simply gone home. This isn't a problem for a closed restaurant, but when establishments start to reopen, they might well have a very different work force. 

As for the friends who work in the city. I talk to most on Whatsapp regularly. None have been near an office since March. Most have settled into a pattern of working from home and many firms have realised that there are big cost savings to be made. I simply cannot see any way that the former London office culture will return. This will mean that there are empty offices and the pubs, restaurants, bars and other shops that serve them will lose a significant chunk of their customers. If this change happened gradually, then districts could adapt and re-invent themselves. Covid has meant that it has happened in the course of a year, a year where most businesses have had their doors shut. In short, it is cataclysmic for these areas of London. The suburbs, such as Mill Hill, have been less affected. There is a different dynamic. Many are actually better off, as they've not had to pay to commute or pay for lunch and after work entertainment. Property prices in such areas are actually rather bouyant. 

BBC Radio London broadcaster Robert Elms has stated that he believes London plays the long game and will reinvent itself. This is just one of those cycles of change. Does he have a point? I am sure that London will not disappear off the face of the earth. It will change. Whilst I can't see the big city offices returning in the same way, I don't personally believe that offices are dead. I've worked in many and the synergy that you can get from having working in an office of like minded people working hard, then going for a drink after, in a city pub, where problems and issues are discussed and solved, without the firm paying a penny, is one aspect that many firms bean counters have never understood. Few companies really get that. I can only think of one that really enhanced the concept. Many years ago, I worked on technology projects based on systems provided by a US company called Tandem Inc. Every Friday, Tandem would have a 'Beer Bust' in their offices, where a fridge full of beer was there to be consumed at the end of the week. If customers and clients were around, they'd be invited to join in. After the beer bust finished, people would often adjourn to the nearest drinking establishment. It now sounds very '80's, but it meant that people had a degree of loyalty to Tandem products that I've not seen for other corporate entities. 

I do see a situation where, with vacant cheap office space, small startups will recreate that sort of spirit, but it won't happen overnight. If you want to develop leading products, I strongly believe a vibrant environment enables this. Lockdown will have given a lot of creative people a great opportunity to develop ideas. I am personally hopeful that this will be an unexpected covid dividend, that will emerge over the next two years.   I also expect many of the city centre offices to be repurposed as flats. I think it is very likely that these will attract a younger and more fluid population than London currently sees. I expect property prices in central London to slump as all of these things happen, but recover as the City reinvents itself. I fully expect London in ten years time to have completely different feel to it as a result.

Sadly we will  see major pain for Londons transport system. As less people are likely to be commuting, the budget for public transport will be hit. For decades the tube has run at a profit but the bus system has made a loss. I expect the ridership on the tube to recover to some degree. Buses are always necessary for key workers and for parts of London that have no other infrastructure, but I expect to see a major scaling back of routes that are running empty. Unless there is serious financial support, this could have a drastic effect on London's recovery. What we need is for the Mayor and Central government to get together and work out exactly how they will manage this. The stated aim of both is to increase cycling, reduce car usage and move away from fossil fuels. If tube trains are running at 80% capacity even in rush hour, maybe TFL should be encouraging people to take bikes on them. I have wondered whether a purpose built carriage, with no seats when cyclists could dock bikes may work? One thing is clear,  If we simply carry on with the old methods of financing all of this, TFL will become bankrupt and London will commit a huge act of self harm. If this budget squeeze damages the amazing public transport system, London will lose a great advantage over many other cities it competes with.

Then there is the entertainment and hospitality sector. I had a chat with a friend who I meet regularly, in normal times. We would usually meet in a pub for a couple of beers, then adjourn for a curry. We visit a different district of London each time and have built up a big network of pubs and restaurants to visit. Our conversation was pretty much based around "Which of these will still be running when a degree of normality returns?". I think it is likely that many of these establishments will have simply shut up shop. Maybe new ones will open.

One thing that breaks my heart, that has been evolving over the last few years is that the traditional Bangladeshi Indian restaurants we associate with London are simply fading away. The generation of owners who opened them, when times were good, are ageing. Their children do not want to work in the industry and the visa rules prevent them from taking on staff from Bangladesh who know the culture and cuisine.  The crisis has pushed many of these to the edge, if not over the cliff. I for one will mourn the loss of the traditional curry house both in the city and the suburbs. Then there are pubs and microbreweries. These have been hit especially hard by lockdown. The pub sector has been in decline for a long time. In recent years, microbreweries have reinvigorated the sector, but the rules around lockdown have made many of these untenable propositions. I've been told that many pubs are now coming under the scrutiny of property developers. I suspect that what will happen is that many pubs will be lost for flats that no one wants anymore. The fact that a few developers will lose a lot of money will not cause me any loss of sleep, but the cost to society will be immense. 

If we look at our shops, many people have switched to online shopping. This was happening gradually before covid, but we've seen 20 years of change in ten months. I doubt that people will go back to their weekly big shop with a loaded trolley. Many department stores have closed. By the same token, many independent shops have actually thrived during the crisis. My local butcher and wine shop have had their best Xmas ever. I think people are waking up to the fact that whilst buying beans on line may be ok, if you want quality you need a local shop, run by someone who knows what they are doing and who can help and guide you. It would seem to me that such small businesses need help and encouragement and young people should be taught that running such and enterprise is a great thing to do. I see independents as the future for Londons high streets. This will need a whole change of the way we tax business though. It is ridiculous that a multi national pays no UK tax on sales of billions whilst the local butcher pays 10% of every sausage he sells to the taxman. 

As to the theatre and music sector. Theatres generate a huge mount of economic activity in London. As theatres have been shut, all of the pubs, pre theatre restaurants etc have taken a massive hit. I just hope that enough of these survive to make the West End viable. I suspect that once a degree of normality returns, then the the return of punters will bring the other business back. 

Grassroots music is likely to be hit far harder. Without the network of pubs and other venues, in the short term this seems likely to contract massively. It seems likely that in a years time, there will be a lot of empty properties and shut pubs and clubs.  It seems to me that  music will offer an opportunity to repurpose some of these. I've been promoting music for over 40 years. I know that music can make a venue a lot of money if done properly. This only works if you put the right music at the right venue in the right area. It is best done by local promoters who love the genre they are working in and have the network to get the best artists. I sincerely hope that a new generation of young people, willing to take risks, gets stuck into the empty properties and transform them into new venues. This was what happened in 1976/7 with the punk explosion with clubs like The Roxy. There is a saying that nature abhors a vacuum and I think that once landlords wake up to the fact that their properties are costing them money, this will start to happen. 

There is a big role for government, both local and national in all of this. For London to regenerate itself, government will need to ensure an environment exists where people wanting to open new businesses, transform offices into flats, regenerate pubs etc are not blocked by unhelpful rules, regulations, costs and paperwork. Government needs to make  it as simple as possible for people to open shops and businesses that improve areas. On the flip side of the coin, here in Barnet we've seen some absolutely awful, eyesore developments. These have been justified because there has been a shortage of housing. Sadly, when built, these blocks are not for locals or key workers and the developments add little to the local economy, as they are bought by offshore investors, who have no interest in the area. 

In short, if London is to re-invent itself, we need Londoners themselves to rebuild the city. We need to understand what a 21st century digital city should look like. We should ensure that there is good quality housing for key workers and all of the things that make living in London amazing are retained. We should try and make London a fairer and younger city. We should encourage start up firms to take on empty offices. We should educate our young people to think in terms of doing things for themselves. We should retain a cheap and efficient mass transport system, which is non polluting and safe. I believe that London will go through a very difficult period, but it will recover and come back better and stronger. Whether this happens in two year, ten years or twenty years, depends on the quality of our leadership, both local and national. When we elect these leaders, we should be asking what they plan to do about these issues, rather than voting like donkeys, based on the colour of a candidates rosette. I want to see people going into politics with CV's that show tangible achievements, rather than people who have been selected because they've inserted themselves into a talentless political bubble, where they are seen as loyal.

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