There is talk that working from home has become so ingrained and old working arrangements so untenable in this new, socially distanced world that it will force city-centre offices to repurpose. When I hear such a claim that office blocks will have to convert to residential or be left unlet and economically idle, I imagine this absurd exchange: “Where are you now working?” – “From home, Flat 1, 1 City Road” – “Interesting, but isn’t that exactly where your old office was?”
No doubt some will argue that the new home-working rule will free us to move to rural idylls, resulting in deserted urban centres and not merely distressing the office market but adding further pain to urban retail and leisure space. True, there has long been a tradition for us to move further out as we head towards retirement. No less true is an increasing demand by the growing metropolitan class, if you will, to be amongst it all. Now, whilst growing student numbers have played a role in refilling city and large town centres, young working professionals have been the main movers or rather arrivals. Because, to repeat, they demand not to be socially distant from it all.
This has been the story from London to Liverpool, Leicester to Leeds, Bristol to Birmingham and Southampton to Sunderland, all seeing a more than doubling of household numbers in and close to their centres since 2000. So, whilst we may change how we work, we will continue to do so mostly from offices situated in and around city and town centres, with a third of us reaching them on foot. And as we return to offices, as we indeed will, this will bring a revival of those commercial premises that serve our needs while heading to and from work and during our breaks. So, whilst the centre of Britain’s towns and cities, and in particular that of its capital, currently look moribund, commercial recovery is certain. Certain, yes, but only after a necessary extraction.
What is often the case anatomically is also relevant economically. Our appendix and wisdom teeth were once essential for the crude diets to which our predecessors had no real alternative. Now, thanks to our more refined tastes and expansive food choices, we can manage perfectly well without them, and in fact often feel much better for their extraction (not that our modern diets are entirely healthy, of course). Indeed, there are other parts of our body now serving no useful modern purpose, but which have never been evolved out of us. Within the body of an economy too there are parts that, having been essential, cease to be so, and indeed whose continued presence cause – avoidable – displeasure.
And just as extracting wisdom teeth, an appendix or tonsils is never without procedure and some discomfort, the same is too for the extraction of a business from an economy, one that once performed a valued role but is no longer required or which we have evolved out of. Such extractions will of course leave scars, but these will not prove long lasting. The reality is those mid-market restaurants, retailers and other elements that until recently were staples within the body of the UK economy can and will be extracted. Be in no doubt, the scars left on high streets and shopping centres from this procedure will not last long – far less, in fact compared with when we evolved out of coal mining and textile milling. New will replace old.