29 Jul 2020
Announcing the long-term decline of cities as a consequence of Covid-19 is misguided, for I believe their inherent economic and social strengths will reassert themselves when the crisis has finally passed.
However, what is alarming in the short-term is the outlook for the tens of thousands of jobs in city centre businesses that depend on a mix of commuters, students, tourists and shoppers for their footfall.
The Centre for Cities is publishing a monthly high street recovery tracker using anonymised mobile phone data, and the picture for large cities is especially grim. The tracker compares city centre activity in February – the last full month before the lockdown began – with activity in each month thereafter.
Most recent data for the first week in July covers more than 60 cities and towns across the UK. It shows on average centres had recovered just 45% of their pre-crisis activity, and the data explains in some detail where the challenges lie.
People are returning fastest during weekends with 55% of activity back, but only 17% of workers and 32% of night-time customers are using city centres again. Commuters look least likely to come back soon, and NatWest Group won’t be alone in indicating that the vast majority of staff will be working from home until next year.
Amongst the most sluggish are almost all of the UK’s biggest centres and both Glasgow and Edinburgh are in the bottom 10. Glasgow (42%) is faring better than Edinburgh (29%) with London (23%) at the very bottom of the table. Trends are the same. Workers are staying away, weekend shoppers are venturing back and the night-time economy is recovering a quarter of its February business – and worryingly February isn’t a month the night-time economy would regard as a healthy benchmark.
It is no surprise workers are staying away from the centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh since the Scottish Government delayed its review on non-essential offices until plans for the August opening of schools have been settled. With two-metre social distancing still in place and an understandable caution in their health and safety policies, employers will likely keep most staff at home irrespective of any Scottish Government decision.
It seems a vice is closing on Scottish business. The UK Government has opted to reopen the economy relatively quickly and encourage businesses back to as near normal as possible, but support mechanisms, especially the Job Retention Scheme, are being wound down over the next three months.
The Scottish Government is much more cautious but doesn’t have the financial firepower to fill the gap if it takes longer for the Scottish economy to recover. From a Glasgow perspective, that vice is most alarming for city centre businesses that employ over 30,000 in our shops, restaurants, hotels and bars, nightclubs and music venues – many of which are small and rapidly running out of reserves.
There are some positive moves in response. Glasgow Life has launched the Glasgow is Open campaign to remind Glaswegians what they can safely enjoy on their own doorsteps. VisitScotland is including cities in its own campaign across the country.
But we need more. We need to hear more from the Scottish Government on its economic recovery plan and we need to hear specifically how it will support business in city centres.
It is due to respond to the Higgins Report this week, but Higgins said next to nothing about Scotland’s cities. That is why we are asking for a task force dedicated to the recovery of our city centres, and for the Chancellor to think about more business support in his Autumn Statement.