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Why we must reinvent central London as a playground after Covid-19
30 March 2021
Our work on the future of central London for the Mayor is now complete, and its release, as England enters into the first phase of lockdown easing, is timely.
The pandemic’s impact on central London, or the Central Activities Zone (CAZ), is sadly now even more entrenched. A sluggish return to economic growth, reductions to office worker footfall, and a slow return of tourists, could lead to as many as 97,000 additional jobs at risk in the CAZ alone in 2023. This might sound small compared with the estimates of 250,000 jobs lost across the capital in 2020, but by 2023 the Office for Budget Responsibility expects the UK economy to have recovered. Our work suggests that recovery might not be evenly spread, and there is already some evidence of what economists call “scarring”.
These job losses are expected to be concentrated in the leisure industries of food and beverage, hospitality, entertainment, and arts and culture, These are sectors which employ many of London’s lower paid workers, who are often young, and first-generation migrants.
Importantly, job losses in these industries could lead to even more significant declines in employment elsewhere. Alongside commerce, universities, healthcare, tourist attractions, and residents, London’s leisure and culture sectors form a vital part of an eco-system within the CAZ. Out-of-work opportunities can often be e the reason that many young people and businesses choose to locate in the capital. Damage to one industry risks knock-on effects elsewhere.
But all is not completely lost. Our recent analysis suggests that a new post-Covid vision for the CAZ, spearheaded by the Mayor, brings opportunity for reinvention. For a greener, more inclusive CAZ that is a better place to live, visit and work. We need to give reasons to visit the CAZ beyond work and shopping, to revitalise it into a more fun place, like a playground that works for all demographics.
We see an opportunity to deliver a step-change improvement in the urban experience with a level of ambition beyond those of previous plans, from recreational facilities close to workplaces to spaces that bring people closer to nature. The proposed works on Oxford Street are a positive start, but more ambition is needed. The more we mix things up in the central area, the more we will encourage people to collaborate, and innovate across the different parts of the eco-system.
We must encourage growth in London’s emerging sectors, including tech and life sciences. The emerging industries that were booming before Covid are the bedrock of London’s future growth and require special attention. They need bespoke space, people, incentives and marketing to invest here. And we must reskill Londoners so that they can take advantage.
These steps are essential to increasing the number of residents in central London. There are only a third as many people living within walking distance of Trafalgar Square, compared with Times Square, or Notre Dame. A greater number of residents not only creates more footfall for businesses, it makes the CAZ more resilient to future disruption, and creates a more sustainable environmentally friendly city. This should be achieved through positive strategic and local planning focussed on Opportunity Areas such as Kings Cross, Tech City and Paddington, and not through low quality accommodation encouraged by the relaxation of permitted development rights.
The CAZ is at a crossroads, the likes of which we have not seen in a generation. It must reinvent itself if it is going to survive. Both Paris and New York City have already begun to act. After May 6, the Mayor must work with central government do the same.