Coronavirus will irrevocably reshape our cities. Will public policy match it?

Edmund Frondigoun discusses the long-term impact of Covid-19 on cities and what policy changes will be needed to adapt to the new normal.

Living in Zone 1 has recently afforded me the opportunity observe the surreal daytime silence of locked-down central London. It’s made somewhat more surreal by the knowledge that many businesses here are for the most part continuing as normal with their employees dispersed at home. Cloud software and video conferences have recreated almost all the necessary functions of the office.

I actually sat down to write this before Twitter announced that their staff can work from home permanently, but it’s increasingly likely that even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed, many people will chose not to return to office-based style of working. Would it be possible for them to do so even if they wanted to? As the country adjusts to the likely privations of a post-COVID economy, many businesses may conclude that communications software is a necessity, but a full time office is not. Working from home therefore becomes the new normal, and a co-working area is only used when needed. In the fourth industrial revolution, the line between home and work is irrevocably blurred.

What this means for the city is staggering. Scores of city centre offices, particularly in newly-regenerated areas, become surplus to requirement. So too do adjacent shops, restaurants and bars. If people are using less space to do the same amount of work in, business rates revenue takes a nose dive. A new retail park or redeveloped warehouse seems like less of an engaging prospect for an investment, and so for the local community, local development funding will no longer be forthcoming.

So parks, schools and social spaces will all take a hit. Our cities will start to slide into decay. And, to top that, after having spent months cramped in a small flat with no garden or green space, what’s to say that those that have the means to leave the city won’t? Will people be rushing in to buy up expensive city centre flats if they can buy a house with a garden further out but for a similar price? And how much economic damage will be caused by millions of people no longer commuting in to work?

The short term impact of our new COVID economy is fast becoming apparent as local authorities are forced to contemplate the most severe spending cuts to cope with a situation looking set to stay. But that isn’t to say that we should look to return to how things were before March. The fundamental changes underpinning our new economy were already in play long before. For right or wrong, technology marches on, often faster during a crisis. It is no more possible or practical to halt this decentralisation of work than it would have been to save the mines or the mills half a century ago. As socialists and democrats, we should instead adapt to this change, proactively mitigate its worst effects, and ensure the wealth and opportunity stemming from it are available to all. Already several people are honing in on adaptations to halt a catastrophic decline of our cities.

Reforming local authority taxation, particularly business rates, must be an urgent priority. In a decentralised, Uberized world, where the house is a node of economic activity, and corporate offices a relic, it is obsolete to levy a charges based solely on floor space. Similarly, current retention and pooling arrangements don’t make sense when people work remotely but interdependently up and down the country. Finding a practical and fair way collect and distribute these funds in a way that is indicative of need is necessary; growing the local tax base simply does not make sense in a decentralised world.

More broadly, any shift in the economic geography of this country could become a welcome opportunity to redefine how space is used- if there is no need to have a permanent central office, or for people to live in or near a city to find certain jobs, will our national imbalance in investment and opportunity be shared? Likewise our urban model must be redesigned to recognise that homes and commercial property are no longer mutually exclusive. New city homes must be able to compete with spatial offerings elsewhere. Planning Frameworks and building regulations must be updated to require that all homes are smart, energy efficient, and allow space for work and leisure. Most importantly, they must be affordable to all.

It is, of course, still speculative whether our current working habits will continue. Yet who in the Labour party of 1945 could have imagined that the industrial social and economic fabric of the country would have fundamentally changed less than a century later? But it did, and the failure of policy and politicians to accept and adapt caused much of the inequality we have today. Another fundamental change is now upon us, and it is on our generation to do differently.

Edmund Frondigoun is a Labour Party activist from north London and works in Smart Energy policy. He occasionally writes about technology. He writes in a personal capacity.

He can be contacted at: edmundfrondigoun@gmail.com 

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