Has Covid changed the shape of London forever?

London Town

After a rollercoaster year and a half, our economy is preparing to burst back to life.

Fuelled by the joint success of the vaccine rollout and our effort in the third lockdown, we are now fighting back against our invisible foe that has, and continues, to wreak havoc around the world.

Yet, life as we know it in the UK has shifted. Covid-19 has reset the way we look at life – re-shaped our routines, our world views, and our perception of our urban landscape.

The sense of change is palatable as you walk through London. Although we are returning to our streets, pubs and shops once again, the city and its inhabitants feel forever changed. We have been provided a chance to re-assess our routines, and evaluate what we really want from our city.

What we have seen is the return of London being a city of many communities, where people want to both live and work and be entertained in different pockets of the capital. It has seen Londoners embrace the suburbs and remain distant from the city centre.

A shift from the centre towards re-energised boroughs could transform the layout of the capital for years to come. We are seeing the emergence of a polycentric London where life increasingly centres around local boroughs and neighbourhoods. Small 15-minute mini-cities are developing where people can access different services, leisure options and work all within a quarter of an hour of their house. The e-scooter pilots would do well to focus in these areas rather than engage in a ‘battle for the centre’ for now.

The pandemic has accelerated London’s race to become a truly polycentric city and the death of the daily commute has reinvigorated life in boroughs that are increasingly becoming homes to entrepreneurs, millennials and families.

Put simply – the West End is still a ghost town with theatres still closed and many pubs and restaurants unable to open due to a lack of outside space. This is not the only area, with the streets of the Embankment and Mayfair remaining quiet. In these places, even though shops can now open – many are boarded up or stand empty as there are not enough people around to make it profitable to operate.

Yet, the outer boroughs have become thriving, vibrant centres where people live, work and socialise. From Hackney to Wandsworth and Greenwich – we are now seeing new epicentres emerge with a wave of new office spaces, retail outlets and leisure facilities rushing to serve communities that do not want to travel to the central business district but still want to experience all that city life has to offer.

This is because the virus has enabled us to re-evaluate our routines and even though restrictions are easing, people no longer want to be getting on a crammed tube into the city or changing trains three times before reaching their final destination. However, they also don’t want to commit to working a solitary five-day week alone at home either. They want flexibility and opening up offices in the outer boroughs of London will allow for this.

This means we are likely to see more and more companies re-asses how they utilise their spaces in the city and add in more flexible office spaces in the periphery of the city over the coming years – providing their workers with the best of both worlds – being able to see their colleagues whenever they want whilst limiting their daily commute in the process, which will in turn massively improve people’s quality of life and wellbeing.

There is of course much that is unknown about what a post-covid London will look like. Only time will tell whether this shift in permanent or fleeting, what the impact on the commercial and residential property markets will be, or the impact on public transport and London living costs.

We should view this change as an exciting prospect – a chance to re-utilise our cities and provide people with more control over their lives and communities.

Gavin Poole is chief executive of Here East and sits on the advisory board for Tech London Advocates.