05What needs to change

Covid-19 has left no part of the UK untouched and has affected daily life across the country. Where this has had the biggest impact is in the city centres of London and the Core Cities – turning their city centres to ghost towns as their many thousands of office workers have switched to home working and people have been cautious about spending their leisure time there.

A large part of the economic damage appears to be temporary, and the pent-up demand for local services waiting to be released by homeworkers after the end of restrictions will help recreate many jobs in city centres. For this reason, it would be a mistake to assume cities will enter a period of long-term contraction because of this short-term shock. Problems such as housing affordability, urban mobility, and increasing local living standards will be harder to solve if cities and national government start planning for a period of limited or zero growth.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that any a permanent shift towards working from home would stunt a recovery, as high-skilled exporting workers opt to stay home and consume less within city centres, damaging the job prospects of lower-skilled people in the city centres who depend on that spending.

In the meantime, increased working from home appears not to have coincided with reduced congestion problems, but instead to have displaced travellers into cars as they avoid public transport and city centres. Air pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the Core Cities, even though city centre commuting has not.

These local economic problems arise not from the direct cost of Covid-19, but from how it has changed and may change residents’ behaviour towards city centres, spending, and urban travel. The size and importance of the Core Cities means that these choices have consequences for the national economy too. The Core Cities and national government will need to work together to help ensure that their city centres recover. The recently announced Urban Centre Recovery Taskforce will play a crucial role in doing so.

Encourage public transport usage once it is safe

The challenge for the Core Cities will be to encourage city centre workers and firms to return to their offices once it is safe to do so. The message from the Government not to use public transport in the early stages of the pandemic was clear. An opposite campaign of equal magnitude will be required in order to reverse this, and should be a priority for the Core Cities and the new task force.

Tackle air pollution

The rise in private transport usage also raises concerns about longer-term impacts on air pollution. While the pandemic improved air pollution in the spring of 2020, greater car usage means that it might make it worse in the longer term. The cities should look to restart their policy changes to improve air quality that were under way before the pandemic struck, particularly Clean Air Zones.

Focus on commercial property

While the discourse last year latched onto the idea of the ‘death of the office’, profound changes did take place in England’s framework for land-use planning and commercial property. The merger of numerous commercial use classes into the single ‘E’ class and the ongoing expansion of Permitted Development Rights (PDR) make it easier to switch uses.

The commercial property market will therefore be more flexible, which increases the need for local government to monitor the situation and step in when necessary if the supply of office space in city centres begins to be squeezed. The Core Cities will continue to need high-quality city centre office space as they recover from Covid-19, and will have important roles to play as the Government attempts to both ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘level up’. To counteract this squeeze if it occurs, the Core Cities should either request or extend Article 4 exemptions from PDR for their city centres, while making sure that a pipeline of new homes is built to meet residential demand.

The cities should monitor the quality and use of the public realm around commercial property too. Much work has been done on public realm in recent years, and this should continue in conjunction with new development. It should also be adapted in light of any new requirements from office occupiers in post-pandemic city centres.

Improve local skills

Once the pandemic is over, the underlying social and economic challenges the Core Cities were already facing will still need to be tackled. In the long term, improving the skills of each city’s population is essential. The Government’s new further education white paper is a step towards this.

But there needs to be greater clarity on how the new Local Skills Improvement Plans will be led in the Core Cities, especially those with metro mayors, as overlapping responsibilities between the Chambers of Commerce, the Local Enterprise Partnerships, and Mayoral Combined Authorities will need to be simplified. The Core Cities should look to the forthcoming Budget and Spending Review for financial commitments from the Government.