Back in the summer, lockdown restrictions eased, and many people returned to city centre offices, visited their favourite restaurants and pubs and even took holidays abroad. Now in November 2020, we’re once again under national lockdown restrictions and mostly living, working and playing within our local areas. We’ve been here before and this behaviour could be a short-term reaction to the new measures except there is now evidence of longer-term trends and a new form of localism emerging.
- According to the High Streets taskforce, town centre footfall dropped by 75.9% on average between March and July (versus the same 2019 period) and didn’t fully recover over the summer. Local high streets and smaller district centres with a wider range of local amenities dropped by 38% in the same period but recovered better, returning to 2019 levels.
- Rightmove data showed 69% more central London properties on the market than the same time last year, with a 4.2% drop in rent. ‘Flats’ were no longer the most popular search term, they had been replaced by searches for two- or three-bedroom houses with outside space.
- Local parks and green spaces were flooded by a wave of people seeking an escape from their homes, ‘rediscovering’ the area within a 15-minute walk of their homes.
- Thousands of grassroots-level mutual aid networks emerged during lockdown, supporting many of the most vulnerable people, and demonstrating the potential of community power. Although many networks became less active once lockdown eased and their activities stopped, the infrastructure they created remained, leaving behind more networked and resilient communities.
If these trends continue, how should city makers respond? What do we do with spaces that don’t work anymore? What’s feasible with an economic recession looming? What policy and investment are needed to protect and enhance our local areas?
These questions formed the basis of an alumni-led discussion, chaired by FoL board member and LB Croydon’s Head of Regeneration Lucy Webb with pan-London insight from Jenna Goldberg, Director at London Communications Agency.
Transport and infrastructure
With TfL forced to shelve plans for Crossrail 2 as part of its government bailout package there are signs that major infrastructure projects may not represent good value for money in the current climate and might not serve the present needs of Londoners.
This also acknowledges that transport infrastructure is difficult to reconfigure once it’s built. London’s radial rail and road network doesn’t easily serve orbital connections, making it difficult to move between suburbs. Softer, more flexible infrastructure schemes at the local level, such as expanded cycle routes and low-traffic neighbourhoods, may represent better value for money and support a longer-term shift to localism.
Changes to infrastructure planning also has major implications for development viability. Locations are chosen for their proximity to transport hubs linking the periphery with the centre. If this is a lower priority for buyers, it will affect investment decisions and where homes are built.
Challenging development assumptions
As well as homes, the value assumptions behind commercial spaces are being challenged. Private-owned commercial assets have been devalued as occupiers and employers embrace more remote working, affecting demand for office space. In places like LB Croydon, commercial landlords work with the council to determine the best use of these assets. The council engage the community to better understand evolving demand and advise the private sector on how they could adapt.
The recent introduction of Use Class ‘E’ to planning policy has created an opportunity to quickly convert office and retail spaces into other uses, without planning consent. Permitted development rights continue to provide an attractive option to landlords to convert underperforming shop units into homes. But both office and retail remain essential to our high streets and local authorities must work to safeguard their presence, recognising their need to adapt as their long-term future is uncertain. This is a concern for many local authorities who are keen to preserve commercial spaces during the economic downturn. Once lost, they’re hard to get back and this is the crux of the matter for local authorities who know that town centres provide communities with a social and economic hub.
However, the council often don’t hold these commercial spaces and must deal with fragmented ownership. Compulsory Purchase Orders have proven to be both divisive and resource intensive. Therefore, a collaborative approach, sitting down with landlords, occupiers and residents is more likely to yield a positive result and shared vision for the future of high streets and workspace.
Inner and outer borough challenges
There’s widespread acknowledgement that the pandemic has only accelerated the pace of change on the high street. Both inner and outer boroughs have already invested in delivering more diverse and vibrant high streets to attract local people, as well as international visitors and investment. But both also face specific challenges as well.
As more people move into outer boroughs looking for greater space, prices will rise and there’s a risk of gentrification. Will existing communities be pushed out? A balance is needed between welcoming investment but doing so for the benefit of local communities and character.
An exodus of people from inner London creates opportunities to build homes in central town centres. Shrinking demand creates a chance to build affordable homes in sought-after areas, that could introduce a new generation to city-centre living and help diversify the high street.
Embedding local behaviour
There’s a huge opportunity to convert a generation into living locally and embracing a circular economy model. Buying from local retailers creates more local jobs. Using local parks more often boosts the case for more investment to make them more attractive, better maintained spaces. If communities understand these links better, they’re more likely to keep investing time and money in their local area.
Key to this is building inclusive spaces. There’s already data behind the importance of this in designing greenspaces so everyone feels welcome, and more local authorities need to invest in these principles if they want localism to continue.
This will also benefit the sustainability agenda, as more boroughs declare climate emergencies and need to encourage wholesale behavioural change in residents, businesses, visitors and investors. Leveraging neighbourhood mutual aid networks could be an effective way of spreading the word, building trust and encouraging sociable behaviour.
Before we redesign our cities, a word of caution. There is a danger in overreacting to footfall and other statistics, predicting the demise of city centres as we know them. It is too soon to make these assumptions and incompatible with most policymaking that looks five to ten years ahead.
Aside from the difficulty in reconfiguring infrastructure, there are established cultural and commercial bastions in central London that will bounce back and continue to draw people from outer London and beyond, driving London’s economy. The outer needs the inner.
However, it’s impossible to ignore all the calls for change and irresistible not to take advantage to reimagine what is possible. It’s more productive to examine future scenarios, choose the ones we want and work to design the strategy and practical steps to get us there. This helps us take the best of the current situation with us. Localism, a circular economy, pride in our green spaces and the growth of mutual aid networks are just a few examples of the positives of the pandemic that should be built on.
This event was part of Future of London’s Communities of Practice forum, bringing together alumni to share challenges and ideas on some of the critical issues they face during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. It was also part of FoL’s Learning From Crisis response and recovery programme. Find out more about the Alumni network and Learning From Crisis, and get in touch with future Communities of Practice forum suggestions.