I’m standing in the City on a sunny weekday morning, trying not to be dragged into the middle a shoal of suits. Clutching briefcases, morning newspapers and reusable coffee cups, they pour out of the exits towards offices in the modern spires that stretch into the London skyline. A few months ago, you could have heard a pin drop here; for 18 months, the postcode was a ghost town. Now, the Square Mile — the barometer of London’s success — is busy again. On Monday morning, TfL figures showed that rush-hour trips on the Tube were up 17 per cent from the previous Tuesday, to just under a million — the highest since March 2020.
Buses also saw 39 per cent more passengers. It’s still nowhere near the pre-Covid peak — as Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities, points out, “it’s an increase on the week before, but still only about half the figures pre-pandemic”. Data released by his think tank today shows that London footfall in August was only 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. But the Square Mile has definitely started swinging once again.
Gareth Banner, managing director of The Ned hotel near Bank, took a moment at 8am on Tuesday to watch commuters pour out of the tube station. “The streets were alive,” he says, eyes shining — and he even manages to sound cheerful about being “wedged into someone’s armpit” on the Tube. Paul Copp, visiting tailor at Tom James bespoke clothing, is delighted. During the pandemic, he was measuring clients in their homes (“I got to know south-west London pretty well”). On Wednesday, he was back in the Square Mile, fitting suits for City types in the workplace. “In the last 10 days we’ve seen a massive uptake, with people beginning to get back into the office and dress in formal clothing again.”
He has a fair bit of work on his hands: “Our tailor’s shop is full of people who have lost weight and put on weight, or are the same weight but a different shape, because their lives have changed”. Regrettably, standards seem to have slipped at home. “The dress sense of the City has gone completely down the toilet,” Copp says, though he thinks it will improve. “When people start getting competitive for business… they tend to dress up a lot more.”
The streets are coming back to life. Ye Olde Watling pub near Mansion House is supposedly where Christopher Wren drew up plans to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London; on Tuesday evening, pavements outside were filling up with punters catching the setting sun. Bryan, a broker, was on his first trip to the City for three months to meet a client, while financier James, now back in the office three or four days a week, says things are “ramping up”. Pub supervisor Kim says — between pouring pints — that they are getting busier every day of the week.
A few streets east, the escalators outside the Leadenhall Building are moving again, while the Lloyd’s building’s famous exterior lifts are ferrying people up and down. In Leadenhall Market, crowds gather outside the New Moon and the Lamb Tavern, with queues to the bar. Underneath the Gherkin, insurance worker Vasiliki sips an Aperol Spritz with a friend at the Sterling bar. “Tuesdays and Thursdays are the new Fridays,” she suggests, while, “Wednesdays and Fridays are for a hangover maybe.” At the Brewery near the Barbican, guests arrive at the Headlinemoney awards, held online last summer. Can the Square Mile be starting to swing again?
Peter, an investment analyst in the City, was one of the few people left in the office during lockdowns to keep an eye on his building. He says the change from a “depressing” wasteland with a “sprinkling of traders and security” from last autumn is palpable. For him, meeting face-to-face is good for business. “A Zoom meeting is quite transactional,” he says. “You get the meeting done but you don’t really go off topic and push what makes people tick. That matters when you are doing business.” There have been some casualties, though. “We’ve lost the nice place where we used to get a bowl of pasta.”
Restaurants and hotels are feeling activity revive. The Ned’s arrivals at the start of the day included “the longest VIP list I’ve had to review in 18 months: three pages”. Across the road at the restaurant 1 Lombard Street, manager Augusto Bueno enjoyed welcoming regulars back for a busy lunch sitting. “It’s like we were before the pandemic”. Bueno is struggling to hire kitchen and bar staff to keep up with demand — although he’s not sure whether to blame the holidays or Brexit.
Pre-pandemic, the City worked hard and played hard; some people are struggling for match fitness. Emma, a junior analyst on the trading floor of a major bank, says: “It’s exhausting being back in the office five days a week, 7.30am to 6.30pm. You just have no time for sleep or chores.” However, some work is easier, as bosses are out more on lunches, and so are less likely to “pester” than they were remotely. “Clients seem to be right up for getting out again because everyone’s been trapped at home. My team are doing that non-stop,” she says.
Carter of the Centre for Cities thinks a return to workplaces is for the best. “Evidence is pretty clear that people are more creative and productive when they are in close contact with other people,” he says. However, now companies have to sell it to staff. “Whereas before being in the office was something that you were expected to do, the last 18 months has made us think about what our workers do when they are together,” Carter says. He predicts that in a year, the City might be back to “normal”, though with a different mix of businesses.
Harry, fund manager at a small investment firm, agrees he won’t be in five days a week. “We used to have very regular meetings face to face but that hasn’t come back at all,” he says. “The senior guys want to work from home, so it’s hard if they’re working from home to make everyone else do it [work at the office].”
Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey came under fire this week for saying his staff only had to come into the office one day a week — putting him at odds with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has urged people to get back in.
There are some unspoken benefits: “For people with young kids the desire to get back to the office is much higher,” Harry jokes. “There’s no break from it otherwise.” He adds: “Everyone wants to be in at least once a week, more for social reasons. The office definitely has a very important role in the future but it’s just going to be much more flexible.”
It’s not only in finance. One sharp eyed hack at City bible the Financial Times noticed more oat milk in their fridge — a sign that younger journalists were slowly coming back.
Clerks are back in legal chambers, while offices at the Corporation of London were so busy that some didn’t have places to sit. Charlie, who works at an investment firm, has noticed the difference in cafes: “I had to queue for the first time for lunch today.”
The next morning, at London Bridge station, workers complain that there are not enough trains at peak hours —perhaps a hangover from reductions in the pandemic. They exit carriages like clowns pouring out of a “clown car” and stream across the bridge. It could be the sunshine, but it feels like the City is (somewhat) back again.