Changing city centres and the rebirth of local communities

The post- COVID continuation of home working by large swathes of workers (even if only for a couple of days per week), has thrown city centres into crisis whilst many local towns villages and suburbs have experienced a rebirth as spend has switched from cities to local high streets.

Many office commuters have realised the absurdity of spending well over four hours a day travelling to and from their workplace when for the majority of time they can do their job perfectly well from their home, and the once daily commute has become seen as an unnecessary waste of time and detrimental to well-being.

Working from home is now the new normal for many.

Cities, once bustling, busy and thriving with office workers and shoppers, have seen a significant downturn in footfall and whilst there has been somewhat of a bounceback, overall numbers are still way down on pre-COVID levels.

Debenhams and Beales were among the landmark High Street retailers to close their doors during the pandemic, contributing to a 13.4% drop in department stores across Great Britain.

The collapse of the Arcadia retail empire in 2020 saw Burtons, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Topshop and Miss Selfridge all disappear from our shopping streets.

Overall, the number of clothes shops is down 4,300, a fall of 8.5%.

And these closures, a consequence in the main of the switch from physical cash-based retail, to card-based online shopping were significantly accelerated by COVID.

At the same time, more than 800 High Street banks and building societies also closed their doors during the pandemic (-8.1%) along with the loss of more than 6,000 cash machines (-13.2%).

But the media continues to publish articles and scientific opinion stating the reasons why offices are good for us after all.

They promote social diversity and informal contacts, improve working relationships and for many offer a release from relationship claustrophobia and cabin fever by enabling individuals to leave home.

Management ideology of course has long identified “the company” through its headquarters – its physical presence and hierarchy.

The New Scientist also reported the boss of Microsoft worrying that unmonitored home working will eat into the “social capital” built up in through an office environment.

And no matter how good video conferencing is, as yet at least, it cannot connect people in the same way that face to face meetings can and nor does remote working allow the gossip of “those two minutes before and after” a meeting.

But there is also good news for cities and we are now seeing the start of a change in their appearance.

High Streets and shopping centres have become a magnet for hair and beauty services in the past few years – an additional 5,100 premises now operate compared with pre-pandemic – an increase of 5.9%. And charity shops and tattoo parlours have boomed, overtaking pubs and bars which were the most prevalent in March 2020.

There are also opportunities to both preserve and resurrect historic quarters and past industrial buildings, attracting the expanding creative  and tech industries that are seen as holding the key to modern city economies, industries that thrive on urban concentration.

So whilst the future use of city centre buildings for large corporates is being seriously challenged, an upside is the regeneration of local communities with small towns, urban and suburban villages.

With more individuals working from their homes, many communities are no longer dormitory towns with an absence of the bulk of the population during the working week.

The spend that used to take place within cities on coffee, breakfast, lunch, snacks, after drinks work and dinner has shifted to local retailers and hospitality, fuelling the rebirth of local communities.

With those working from home now finding that the journey from ‘the office to the home’ now takes all of 30 seconds rather than a couple of hours, they are enjoying their new found time at both ends of the day to undertake more exercise, spend more time with their family and to preparing meals from both short cut ingredients and from scratch.

And traditionally, as a nation of small shopkeepers, many towns and villages have transformed themselves into a location which are attracting tourists and locals alike, with numerous, small, independent retailers delivering fabulous foods and allowing shoppers to enjoy a cup of coffee or a sit down meal whilst doing so.

This change has seen the independent convenience stores sector increase by 1,600, a rise of almost 3% accompanied by an overall growth in eating and drinking establishments of almost 4%.

There was a similar rise in the number of organic and other speciality food shops too.

And the great British chippie proved its popularity during Covid with 300 more fish and chip shops operating in March this year than two years earlier.

But it isn’t just the independents that have benefitted.

The big supermarket chains opened 194 more stores by the end of the Covid restrictions, up 2.5% with all of these local stores, and the Co-op has seen the massive growth in their sales which started during COVID, continue an upwards trend.

This is the positive aspects of the new world – bringing families together and strengthening local communities and economies.

And these communities are providing welcome relief to the solitude of at home working through local community groups and facilities such as sports teams, gyms, theatrical groups, cycling groups, and walking groups – and with workers having more free time at both ends of the day, the membership for such activities are booming.

But of course, we must hope that we don’t go into a deep recession but use our resilience and ingenuity to move the economy to rapid recovery.

And it is likely that this recovery lies in places commuters call home, where they can replace the ties of the office with those of neighbourhood where they live.

So whilst the shift in those continuing to work from home is just 35%, in economic terms this is a seismic shift which will reshape how we think about where we live, work, shop and spend our recreation time for many years to come. Indeed the rebirth of local communities has become very real.

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