At the outset, I consider that the Covid 19 crisis will have national and international effects that will be unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes. I do not pretend that the following thoughts are structured in any meaningful way, but hope that they may add some substance to the subject headings set out as possible themes for the London Society to follow in its future programmes.
The greater use of, and a wider familiarity with, such online platforms such as Zoom, has highlighted the feasibility of remote working. This may:
Post Covid, of necessity, there has been a movement to shop online, which may well be maintained to some extent in future. Recent research has shown that the trend to online retail, and away from old-fashioned bricks and mortar, has been accelerated by five years, and that the proportion of retail activity online has increased to 30%. More delivery vans on the road, to add to the ‘white van man’ traffic?
A fundamental re-ordering of the retail sector will have been boosted by the pandemic, with fewer shopping centres and retail parks, and more failing retail chains. Paradoxically, however, local food shops and corner shops have served their communities well during the lockdown, and could perhaps continue to be patronised in future. Moreover, local communities, who have drawn closer together in the pandemic, will still want quality entertainment, places to socialise, commercial offices and shops, and this must therefore be an opportune moment to re-imagine the High Street.
As a means of helping to revive the retail sector and local enterprise generally, business rates should be reduced, in the short term at least, and the responsibility for setting rates, applying the proceeds, and operating the system, should be transferred to local authorities. Councils would then be more accountable to their electorate, including the business sector.
Covid 19 has led to a marked increase in community activism and closer links between neighbours. This momentum needs to be maintained and capitalised on.
During the pandemic, there has been a premium on houses with gardens, and a realisation that many other types of residential accommodation were less than ideal, including tower blocks. The increased demand for houses with gardens and/or improved access to open space, could spark a more determined move to suburban areas, and wider rural locations. This decentralising trend could see people and employment moving out of London, and lower property prices in the capital. Reduced profitability for the major housebuilders would in turn affect their ability to provide affordable housing (not really affordable anyway in a London context?), and spur the Boroughs to increase the number of units of social housing that they have been gearing up to provide through their own development programmes.
The young and single enjoy an active social life in London and are most likely to want to stay there in flatshares and cheap accommodation, whilst looking eventually to get a foot on the housing ladder. Together with the frontline workers, whose efforts will now have to be re-evaluated, given their important role in keeping the wheels turning during the pandemic, they go to make up a sizable proportion of the housing need now facing London. Due to the economic downturn, however, many of the former will have found that their work has dried up, temporarily at least, (eg the self-employed in the arts and leisure sectors etc.), or have found themselves unemployed. As a consequence, real demand may have lessened (possibly leading to a drop in accommodation costs), but the balance of need (ie theoretical demand) will still have to be met - probably in the main from an enhanced output of social housing undertaken by the Boroughs.
The role of air conditioning, and heating systems based on circulating hot air, will now, post Covid, be particularly associated with the spread of infection. New design challenges? Fewer tall buildings? Fresh air access? Opening windows?
The example of people like Col.Sir Tom Moore, and pictures of children communing with a grandparent through the closed windows of a care home, have helped to lessen the generation gap. A youth-obsessed society has rediscovered old people.
Covid 19 has ratcheted up a longstanding resentment of incomers buying up second homes in attractive rural and seaside locations, reducing the stock of housing for local people. Tourism is generally welcomed as a source of income, but not where there is a perception that money is not being spent locally, and more recently, not where it brings the risk of infection and the spread of the pandemic. The Covid experience could also give an edge to the resentment felt in the face of an economy perceived to be centred unfairly on London and the South East.
Current restrictions have sparked a move away from public transport in favour of cycling and walking, and have prompted some rearrangements of cycle ways and pavements, which may, or may not, be temporary. Somewhat paradoxically, the car continues to be discriminated against (increased congestion charge, to be extended to cover weekends etc.), despite being the safest mode of transport at present.
The looming Covid inspired economic crisis looks likely to attain unprecedented severity, and economic uncertainty is likely to be exacerbated by a probable collapse of trade negotiations with the EU, and the prospect of rebuilding the economy while moving to trade under WTO rules. The ongoing difficulties with China, and some problems with international supply chains during the early days of the pandemic, have sparked a new emphasis on self sufficiency and an appreciation of the merits of lessening the reliance on a service-based economy. A much touted revival of manufacturing may, or may not be promoted, but in the meantime, reserves of industrial land in London should not be dispensed with too easily.
Some appreciation of the embodied energy contained within the existing urban fabric should commend the adaptive re-use of buildings and structures, and developers would also do well to learn from historic patterns of sustainable urban living (ie terraces, squares, mansion blocks etc.)
It is to be hoped that the economic emergency will not be the cue for a wholesale relaxation of planning controls and set off a prolonged bout of licensed vandalism in the name of economic growth. Judging from past experience, and some of the proposals already being discussed, the omens do not look too promising.
Michael Coupe is and Independent architecture and planning professional, the former Head of Planning and Regeneration for English Heritage, and a London Society trustee.
WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:
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