Will there be a second wave of COVID? Are we ever getting out of this?
It seems that each day the news is full of more stories of COVID spikes, lockdown worries, cases and deaths going up and down. One thing is for sure, during this time, working from home has become the ‘new normal’ for thousands of us. The slink between the bedroom to the living room, the hasty hairbrush before (some of) you turn on the webcam for your office Zoom chat. Then every lunchtime, that break out into the local high street to collect some groceries, get a coffee, get some exercise. We have come to treasure these chitchats with neighbours and the new time we have as we’re not jumping on and off trains.
It seems that it’s going to be a long time before we resume the 5 day a week commute. Home-working is here to stay.
In fact, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ latest commercial property survey has put out a recent report saying that almost all members – 93% – predicted their office space would shrink in the next two years.
So, with us all spending more time during the week within a 1-mile radius from our home, what does this mean for the High Street? Some experts are predicting a revival, but many developers are advocating reducing the number of shops and businesses. In a conference I attended recently 3 developers agreed that 30% of the high street needs to disappear in order to keep rents up. But if this happens, who will the High Street be catering to?
Alongside the thousands of newly home-bound commuters buying an oatmeal latte or oak-smoked ham from a local deli during their lunchbreak, there are thousands more who have lived and worked in these areas for years – those with caring responsibilities, health conditions, those who want to minimise their commute, or are generally less mobile, with a considerably lower income. These groups are seeing many more new faces in their daily grocery shop than they did 4 months ago, and their High Street is changing in front of them. Will the High Street remember them?
In some unlikely areas across London and beyond, we have seen the demand for artisan coffee shops, gift shops and boutiques grow exponentially. The higher rents are attractive to developers but how are we going to ensure that as home-working becomes long-term, the High Street remains democratic and inclusive?
We need to give the locality more influence and dilute the power of the market to decide what goes in our High Street. We need to create a sensible mechanism for sharing the benefits and challenges of this mixed economy, one which allows space for everyone in the community to thrive and be together.
Rent-setting the answer?
With planning controls being rapidly diluted by government we believe that the only effective way of ensuring an inclusive high street is to empower the local authority (or perhaps a more democratic version of a Business Improvement District) to be involved in rent-setting on the High Street. Although this will be anathema to the free marketeers we believe this is the only way to create a High Street that truly reflects the community needs whilst also encourage new business.
COVID has been a strange awakener – it has shown us the importance of our neighbours, and how much we rely on key workers and local businesses. With our rediscovered appreciation of our locality let’s make a High Street that reflects what we have learnt – how to care for each other.