UK: Business: Empty city centres: ‘I’m not sure it will ever be the same again’ – Guardian UK

People in Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol on the impact of lockdown and hopes of a return to normal

People walk past empty office space in Leeds city centre
 Empty office space in Leeds city centre. 

Boris Johnson has given the green light for employers to start bringing staff back to offices from the beginning of August. But in three city centres the Guardian found concern about whether the old normal would ever return.

Leeds – ‘A lot of people are saying they’re not coming back’               

People exercise on the grass outside the empty offices of KPMG in Sovereign Square.
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 People exercise on the grass outside the empty offices of KPMG in Sovereign Square. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

On a normal summer Friday lunchtime in Leeds, Sovereign Square would be awash with lawyers, accountants and city slickers. Now skateboarders and fitness fanatics have taken over.

The foyer of Yorkshire’s tallest building, Bridgewater Place, nicknamed the Dalek for its unusual structure, was deserted. Its tenants include the law firm Eversheds Sutherland and the multinational Ernst & Young. Down the road at British Gas, the only sign of life was a maintenance worker putting down weed killer.

Analysis by the Centre for Cities suggests the recovery in big cities is lagging far behind that in town centres. In Leeds, footfall in the city centre is still less than half of normal levels, having improved only very gradually since non-essential retail reopened in England five weeks ago. In the first week of July only 15% of workers had returned to the city centre, according to the Centre for Cities data.

At Laynes Espresso, a coffee shop on the doorstep of Leeds station, trade was only 20-25% of normal levels, said the owner, Dave Olejnik. “A lot of people are telling me they’re not coming back,” he said. “People have realised the value of the time they spent commuting.”

Olejnik’s shop has been serving commuters for nine and a half years. He had been due to negotiate another 10-year lease, but that now seemed “quite ridiculous,” he said. “I realise I’m possibly talking myself out of a business here, but there’s a cultural and structural shift that’s been forced on us.”

Dan Murray, the chief executive of the entertainment guide Leeds List, said 22 restaurants and bars had gone to the wall in the three months to June. The pandemic was a threat to “mediocre” outlets as people had become more selective about where they spend their money, he said.

survey of the city’s businesses by West Yorkshire Combined Authority found that most were planning to keep remote working and social distancing in place for the next 12 months.

The property firm Bruntwood owns four office blocks in Leeds, housing more than 220 companies. Jessica Bowles, its director of strategy, said the number of workers returning full time was “very low” but gradually increasing, with smaller firms more likely to return sooner than bigger ones.

In a survey of Bruntwood’s 3,000 tenants across Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham early in lockdown, two-thirds said they were looking forward to returning to the office, Bowles said. Childcare and public transport were the big challenges raised by employers rather than the safety of offices, she added.

Bowles said Bruntwood had not seen a big wave of companies wanting to end their city centre leases. However, with many still on economic life support, there will be further pain ahead. JH

Bristol – ‘It’s very, very quiet’

Dilawer Singh
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 Taxi driver Dilawer Singh at Bristol Temple Meads station. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Waiting for his next fare outside Bristol Temple Meads station in the late afternoon, taxi driver Dilawer Singh totted up his day’s takings. It didn’t take long. Between 8am and 5pm he had picked up only three customers, who paid a grand total of £17.

“It is very, very quiet,” he said. “The businesspeople aren’t coming and there are no tourists. Everyone seems scared to come into the city.”

Singh was at the back of the station rank. He expected to sit in his car for two hours before reaching the front and picking up his final fare of the day. “The government needs to do something to bring people back to the city,” he said.

The square in the Temple quarter in Bristol, which normally bustles with office workers, was eerily empty. Suits have become a rare sight. Many pubs, cafes, phone shops and dry cleaners remain closed.

One of the most popular lunchtime hangouts for Bristol’s daytime workforce, the Glass Arcade in the Old City, is a shadow of its former self. John Le Fevre, who runs a smoothie and juice bar, was thinking about opening next week but was not sure it would be worthwhile. “Usually this place is packed at lunchtime. The problem is offices seem to be getting used to workers being at home. We don’t know if it will get back to normal ever.”

David Jackson, who owns Beware of the Leopard, a bookshop in St Nicholas Markets, said: “Passing trade has vanished. The government is trying to say everything is fine but people don’t believe them.”

John Le Fevre
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 John Le Fevre at his juice and smoothie bar in St Nicholas Markets, Bristol. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Lucy Wheeler and Andy Keith-Smith, who have run the Hey JoJo clothing and accessories stall in St Nicks for more than 30 years, said teenagers and people in their early 20s were venturing back. “But we’re missing the office workers and the older people,” said Wheeler. “A big part of our customer base just isn’t here.”

The desktop computers were on at the architecture studio BDP on Hill Street but nobody was in the office. Instead, architects, designers and engineers were operating from laptops at home. Nick Fairham, the head of the studio, said: “It’s a bit like a ghost ship in the office at the moment.” The plan was to get back there in mid-August but with only a third of people in at any one time.

Fairham said he believed businesses serving city-centre offices would evolve and adapt. It could also be that while the centre struggles, high streets in other areas will thrive.

“When you’re working from home you need to get out of the house and to get fresh air and exercise. You got and do some printing or grab a coffee. You could see how this could give a new lease of life to the local high street. Bristol has an official centre but it’s more like a collection of villages. It lends itself to that hyper-local approach,” Fairham said.

On Wine Street, the owner of the British Barber Co, Justin Patterson, was collecting names of customers for contract tracing. His neighbourhood shops in Clifton were doing decent business but the city centre branch was still struggling. “There are no office workers, no tourists, no students around,” he said. “Will they come back in the autumn? I’m not sure.” SM

Newcastle – ‘People just seem afraid to come in’

Empty streets in Newcastle in April
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 Empty streets in Newcastle in April. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Stuck at home owing to the lockdown, the shutters closed on his coffee shop, Joe Meagher was facing an uncertain future. But the 36-year-old owner of Flat Caps Coffee says the enforced break has prompted them to make changes, such as beginning to roast their own coffee, which he thinks will help them ride out the huge drop in footfall across the city centre.

“I open the shop at 7.30am and normally even then I’d struggle to find a parking space, but now I’m the first person into the city centre, which is quite disconcerting,” he said.

“We’re about 50% down on takings. We’re probably seeing about a third of the customers we used to, but the ones that come are spending more. I think coming through this we will have a stronger business model because if you’re still relying on hundreds of people coming in like they used to, it’s just not really possible. It will take a very, very long time for that to come back.”

For more traditional businesses, the opportunity to diversify may well prove more difficult. Phil Harris, 42, who sells fruit and veg from a high street stall in the centre of Newcastle, says they are selling a fraction of what they would be normally.

“We’re really down, we should be chock-a-block but people just seem afraid to come in. We should be doing 50 boxes a day of strawberries right now and we’re only doing 10,” he said. “A lot of the older people used to come into town just for a walk around, to go to the cafes in the Grainger market, but a lot of them are closed so they just aren’t coming in. They just want to come in for a trip out but now they have to walk a certain way, do this, do that, and they aren’t bothering.”

The switch to working from home for many businesses is also affecting how many people are working in the city centre.

Rachael Burns, a 38-year-old recruitment consultant, said: “I’m not sure the city centre will ever be the same again, it’s going to be so hard to get people to feel totally at ease. And even for employers like us, we’ve switched so much of what we do to home working. There isn’t a huge draw to bring it back.

“I think it’ll take some real incentives from local or national government to kickstart the high street again, but I can’t see that happening with all the other pressures we are facing. It was struggling enough before Covid.” TW

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Comments

  • kamtanblog  On July 21, 2020 at 12:54 am

    Work ethics will change…hopefully for the better.
    Working from home becomes the norm.
    With the technology available today/tommorrow it will become much easier to do so.
    Interesting times ahead.

    Kamtan

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