At times I feel like crying. I did the other day when I met a railway manager at St Pancras at 9 o’clock in the morning. Instead of the usual hustle bustle along the walkway between the Underground and Thameslink, there was a handful of people, few of whom showed any urgency to reach their destination.
Outside the picture was the same. The usually jammed bike racks had plenty of spaces. My friend who had travelled in from Woking on a rush hour train with just four people in his carriage showed me pictures of Waterloo at 8 30am : ‘There were most staff than passengers’ he said wryly.
This was after the schools had reopened and Boris Johnson had called on people to come back to their offices. Clearly they are not. The anecdotal evidence among my friends and business contacts is unequivocal. Companies big and small are planning to downsize their office space in central London. One told me of a business with 400 staff who were now just planning to accommodate between 20 and 40; an architect pal said his practice with 25 people is now going almost entirely online; and so on.
I have lived all my life in the capital and it is difficult not to feel emotional about what is happening. Public transport is the most obvious area affected. There is a double whammy, the short term impact of Covid-19 and the consequent fear of catching the disease, and, much more important, the long term impact of people working from home or having virtual meetings via Zoom or Teams rather than real face to face contact. In fact the fear of travelling on public transport has been greatly exaggerated, and the messaging at the height of the pandemic was far too negative. In fact, studies in both Austria and Japan found that there was no evidence that cases had been spread through the use of public transport. However, the perception that there is a high risk, greatly increases by the messaging, remains.
It is though, the longer term impact that is of far greater import. While few people are likely to work from home five days per week, there are probably even fewer who want to go to the office every weekday given that the advantages and ease of working from home have now been understood
Tony Travers, the local government expert and LSE academic, does not foresee any quick recovery: ‘This is a game changer. The whole inner city is dependent on masses of people coming in to work. It is not just the trains and buses. It is theatres, restaurants, concert halls and even shoe shine people and heel bars.’ Meanwhile my optician tells me that his colleagues in the suburbs ‘have never been so busy’.
It is, of course, not just London. In his interview in LabourList, Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, talked about the impact of the local HMRC office and the magistrates court closing in his Oldham constituency.
All this demands a coherent strategy to prevent inner cities becoming the urban deserts, neglected and impoverished, that they declined into during the post war period. It is easy to forget that the inner cities were characterised by slums and abandoned warehouses and factories. It was a similar set of circumstances which began their decline – an emphasis on motorised transport, urban sprawl into the suburbs and the relocation of many jobs away from city centres. It is Labour councils who are in control of many of these areas and a Tory government may seek to act in a politically partisan way in restricting much needed funds to them, as has already happened in London. The response from Labour must be to highlight the risks to these areas and to develop politics to support them.