Anyone who has walked around the City of London in the last six months will attest that it’s a vastly different place from the bustling hub of activity at the beginning of the year. The atmosphere of this now sparsely populated district feels post-apocalyptic, with a dearth of office workers, tourists and associated industries from sandwich shop workers to dry cleaners to bar staff. As and when government restrictions allow it, what can be done then to lure people back to the Square Mile from reduced rail travel to cheaper rents and affordable housing to better diversity in the workplace?
The surviving City population these days is mostly construction workers in high-vis or gaggles of suits who, on closer inspection, often turn out to be well turned out pupils at the City of London school, milling about from Monument to the Millennium Bridge on their lunch break. Doubtless their parents, like vast swathes of the adult population, are at home meanwhile, grasping with a day of Zoom.
In terms of reimagining the place, for its part the City of London Corporation published its recommendations in a document entitled London Recharged: Our Vision for London in 2025. This call to action for the next five years doesn’t just focus on those industries historically associated with the Square Mile such as banking or insurance but also looks to broaden out this area’s appeal to other areas including tech and media. We’ve seen the impact the Bloomberg headquarters being located on the junction of Bank station has had, along with the hotel and members club The Ned in terms of the types of people working and socialising in this part of town. Now, it’s time to develop that to make a concerted effort to attract and retain people with even more diverse backgrounds.
The report says that in order for this to happen, there needs to be a ‘thriving innovation ecosystem’. For example, just as Level 39 has created an incubator hub for the cybersecurity, fintech and retail tech sectors over in Canary Wharf, so the same needs to happen more in the City, with partnerships brokered between corporates, universities and the public sector to make this a reality. There has been some blurring of the lines between Shoreditch, the home of the start up, and the City of London. This needs to continue in order to equip small businesses to transform and grow and recharge the area, partnering across industry silos. Maybe these types of SMEs could even be offered reduced rent on office space for the first year? Perhaps they just pay for the insurance of the building which typically falls to the landlord when the building is empty? The report also recommends investment in the infrastructure of tomorrow in order to maintain London’s global reach. This means voluntary data sharing and setting the standard for regulation in tech and financial services. In terms of financial activity, the late 90s and Noughties, under the stewardship of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, saw more IPOs than any other era, perhaps it’s time to return to those days?
The City also needs to think beyond its geographical limits and learn from leaders across the UK. Think about Andy Burnham’s passion in his role as Mayor of Manchester or Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy for Scotland and there is a good deal to be drawn from approaches outside the M25. Speaking of geography, as many people are still dividing their time between working from home and coming in to the office, how about offering a pack of 5 daily travel tickets for the same price as a weekly one?
London traditionally doesn’t fare well in terms of the cost and length of commuting with a 2018 survey by B2B comparison site Expert Market putting the UK capital in the bottom ten cities around the world for time spent getting to and from work, along with Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Miami. Nice tops the list for best commuter cities with a monthly travel card costing just over £25 per month and a commute of 40 minutes per day. That compares to an average monthly spend of £132 for London’s commuters or spending the equivalent of over three days stuck in traffic for those who use a car. Looking further afield, New York also had an average commute of 40 minutes according to 2019 data by fleet management company Geotab while in the greater Tokyo area, NHK Culture Research Institute stated that commutes came in at an average of 1 hour 42 minutes.
If the government and Mayor are serious about reinvigorating London, more needs to be done to provide cheaper housing in the city as a whole, as well as dramatically improving the quality and duration of travel. To this end, Sadiq Khan has promised 82,000 new homes through the government’s Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) from April next year. The World Economic Forum has pinpointed multiple ways different cities are addressing their respective housing shortages. These range from ‘tradable land quotes’ where developers in the Chinese cities of Chongqing and Chengdu construct housing on the edge of a settlement, in return for opening up additional land in nearby rural areas to a ‘communities plus program’ where private sector and non-governmental and community housing groups in Sydney work together on renovating existing sites with the proceeds going towards further new investment. Hamburg and Copenhagen’s local authorities are also working with the private sector to share risk and streamline the process to improve housing supply.
This reinvention of the City of London should also be a chance to open up opportunities for everyone with financial services, professional services as well as newer industries such as tech committing to supporting under-represented community groups, as well employees. Now’s the time to get thinking about getting the Square Mile back on its feet and maintaining its relevance as the beating heart of the UK’s and the world’s business community.