Following “Freedom Day” on 19 July, will cultural institutions and the night-time economy help bring people back to central London and city centres globally in a post-pandemic world?
One of the areas most significantly affected by the changes in working patterns is the City of London. Half a million people previously worked in the square mile, but this was drastically reduced during the working from home requirements, first imposed in March 2020. Oxford Circus in London’s West End was also eerily quiet during the height of lockdown, with the backstreets of Soho yet to fully recover.
Whilst it can be said that working for home is not for everyone, a taste has definitely been developed for the flexibility of remote working. According to a Cushman and Wakefield Study many staff will look to adopt “hybrid working” beyond the end of the pandemic – with part of their week working in the office, and the other part working remote. As a result, this is likely going to lead to a change in the way that office space is used, and potentially how much and where space will be taken up by companies in the future. There will also be the question of how to attract people into city centres if they are not coming in as often for work.
Despite the desire for more flexible working, something that working from home cannot replace is the desire for social interaction. Company culture is underpinned by the interactions between employees (in real life, not over Zoom), and the experiences that can be had together. A job is not just a place to work, it also forms a core part of an individual’s social life, and this is something that will not change beyond Covid-19.
An opportunity that arises from the desire for social interaction in a post-pandemic world, is to rethink the generic product-focussed city centre / high street model – and to create a more dynamic and socially-focussed environment that will make a journey into the city centre worthwhile. A method of achieving this could be the use of temporary events, an idea already being explored by the private sector and councils, including the London Wonder Ground, delivered by Quod at Earls Court. Temporary events employ culture and the night-time economy to utilise under-used spaces (such as car parks and derelict sties) to rejuvenate city centres and high streets. The UK’s events industry and night-time economy has suffered greatly at the hands of Covid-19 therefore this could be a solution to both causes.
Through providing more interactive and flexible land uses, it encourages new and dynamic patterns of activity in the city centre. This shifts the focus from the products that are being sold to the experiences that can be had. Time of occupancy can be thought of as the new commodity instead of the space itself, where occupiers use spaces for time limited events, installations, or residencies, before a new one takes over on a rolling basis.This ever-changing nature and the opportunity for new experiences that crop up on a weekly basis will provide people with a reason to come back time and time again.
This innovative approach has been suggested for Debenhams on Oxford Street. The 370,000 sq ft multi-storey retail unit is currently lying empty, however ideas have been put forward for a major arts hub.
This process of creating a more versatile city centre experience is evidently on the government’s agenda, as can be seen by the added flexibility of the new planning Use Class Order, that took effect from 1 September 2020. The new Use Class E covers the former use classes of A1 (shops), A2(financial and professional), A3 (restaurants and cafes) as well as parts of D2 (assembly and leisure), putting them all into one new use class. What this means is that these uses are allowed to move between each other under permitted development rights, rather than having to spend the time and money on submitting a formal planning application.
The addition of the new Use Class E is definitely a step in the right direction from the government. It will help improve flexibility between commercial, retail, leisure, and food and drink uses which will have inherent benefits for the UK’s high streets. The new Use Class E does not however cover any night-time economy, cultural or temporary events uses, therefore, the process of gaining planning consent for these types of uses remains unchanged. In order for the UK’s city centres to really benefit from this post-pandemic desire for social interaction, cooperation from local council’s will be key. Councils will need to recognise this clear opportunity to help deliver the infrastructure to facilitate these dynamic social experiences that will make people visit the city centres time and time again – but will they?
 New Perspective: From Pandemic To Performance | Workplace Ecosystems Of The Future [Cushman & Wakefield] https://www.cushmanwakefield.com/en/insights/covid-19/the-future-of-workplace
Underbelly Earls Court: https://theearlscourtdevelopmentcompany.com/news-events/press-releases/underbelly-and-the-earls-court-development-company-announce-the-launch-of-london-wonderground-at-earls-court
 Quod Bulletin on the UCO: https://www.quod.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Quod-Bulletin-UCO-and-GPDO-Amendments.pdf