They are London’s great unloved. To Elizabeth I they menaced the city. Victorians called them the dark horde. As they swarmed over London Bridge, Eliot “had not thought death had undone so many”. Now suddenly we need them, desperately. Come back, commuters. Rally to your city. It needs your fares, your rents, your humble desks and terminals, your Starbucks, your Prets, your nights on the tiles. It dies without you.
So effective was Boris Johnson’s terrorisation of “going to work” that a survey reported last week that only 34 per cent of Britain’s office employees think it safe to return. This compares with 83 per cent in France and 70 per cent in Germany. Riding the Tube has plummeted 75 per cent. London shopping is crippled, at 12 per cent of normal footfall.
These figures will of course improve when summer ends, but no one is predicting London office commuting will revert to its former level.
With tourism also entering an unknown decline, the short-term outlook for offices, shops, hospitality and entertainment is catastrophic. Seventy per cent of office workers now want to be allowed to work from home part time. Activity in the office districts of the City and Westminster is forecast to stabilise at 20 per cent of previous levels.
London has seen traumas before. Both the great fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1941 emptied the central area and pushed workers into the suburbs, leaving London a ghost town. But when people did start to return, it was to a different London, and a modernised one. The great fire created the modern West End. The Blitz replaced industry and slums with offices and flats. Recessions have never been as serious for London as for the rest of the country.
Modern cities are far from dead. They are the greenest and most energy efficient places to live
At the turn of the century, the American urbanologist Richard Florida identified “creatives” as holding the key to the future of cities. New York and London have proved him right.
A quarter of London’s wealth may still lie in the towering finance houses of the City and Canary Wharf, but they are static. The booming sector is leisure, art, design, marketing and computer start-ups, activities that have sent rents soaring in human-scale 18th and 19th-century Soho, Marylebone, Camden, Shoreditch and Bermondsey.
These people can work from home some of the time. But theirs is an intimate often freelance economy, relying on informal networks and personal contact. It craves congregation.
Clearly London is about to see a puncturing of the inflated economics of the 2000s. Tube and bus use will plummet. Coffee houses and dress shops will close massively. London cannot claim the slabs of infrastructure spending of recent years, such as Crossrail and HS2.
But modern cities are far from dead. They are the greenest and most energy efficient places to live. Bikes and scooters will proliferate. Offices will switch to flats and younger and poorer workers will move into the central area.
As we are seeing already, pavements and streets are becoming cafes and markets. Retail London is shifting to Borough and Portobello, Camden Lock and Shoreditch High Street. Carefully planned and conserved, London is perfectly structured for a post-pandemic economy.
So far so hopeful. But London will always need its commuters. It is time we learned to love them.
- Simon Jenkins’ Short History of London appears in paperback this month