Can London adapt to different work practices and living priorities after Covid-19 recedes?
I hate to sound apocalyptical at time that already seems strangely like the end of the world as we know it – but is London finished?
I ask that as someone who has lived there forever (slight paradox – I used to edit the magazine Country Life, but let that go.) During those many decades, I have seen it transformed, each year offering more and better experiences for its inhabitants: better museums, incredible music, excellent restaurants of all types, more street life (there really wasn’t any in the 1970s), a population of dizzying cosmopolitanism. Those coffee shops that we take our laptops to – there were hardly any of them in the last century. Look at the number of places you can now buy artisanal bread? The quality of exhibitions like “Charles I: King and Collector” in 2018 or Antony Gormley last year, both at the Royal Academy, is fabulous. We have the best opera house in the world. There’s an energy here – or was.
But not anymore. Where’s everyone gone? I know there’s a lockdown but people are allowed out for exercise. Yet when I take my daily constitutional the streets are deserted. Not just the streets around here, but Oxford Street. It’s like one of those ghost towns in Westerns with tumbleweed blowing across them. As someone who loves architecture, it’s wonderful. You can stroll around streets where you had never noticed the buildings before. Only a few weeks ago, you couldn’t have stopped to look at one, you would have been knocked into the path of traffic.
The old London (London as it was before Covid-19 switched off the engine) depended on people. Swarms of them. That was the point of it. Although the British are, by tradition, an undemonstrative, phlegmatic, keep-your-distance sort of folk, Londoners hugged and kissed and talked to strangers. We found that we really liked doing things in crowds. Developers have been creating piazzas beneath their glitzy new towers. It’s because even rich people don’t want to stay in their penthouses; the fun is to be had mixing with people, often young and from all over the world, in an atmosphere of festive relaxation. We’ve wanted to be where the hordes are – at Tate Modern, around the West End, along the King’s Road and elsewhere to tempt us into shops. It’s just as well that we enjoy crowds because it’s a crowded city. Usually.
That’s over; people shun each other, like magnets of the same polarity. As time’s gone on, we’ve become increasing sticklers for the rules. Our children have become coronavirus-fascists. Which is making me ask what will happen when citizens are allowed to go back to what remains of their old lives? Will London bounce back to what it was before? One has to wonder. It could be years if at all.
Everywhere has changed, not just the cities. The gainer looks like the countryside. Home has become newly, inescapably, important. This isn’t only a rural thing. All over Britain, people have been discovering their inner Jane Austen: “the strong domestic habits, the all-sufficiency of home,” which Emma admired in Mr Knightley.
In theory, we’ve known for years that it’s quite possible to work from anywhere with broadband. But some mental obstacle prevented us from putting it into practice. Now we’ve had to. My eldest brother, who hadn’t heard of Zoom a few weeks ago, now complains of being Zoomed out. Employers have had to let go of the obsessive presentism of an earlier generation, which meant that people could be understood to be working unless they were seen to be working. That’s out of the window. Bosses have an incentive to encourage home working: office space is expensive. This is happening everywhere but the implications for the countryside are huge.
Villages that have been empty during the day will be able to support pubs and other businesses if people with jobs are there during the day. This is a big plus. In recent years, London has acted as a huge vacuum pump, sucking in talent from the rest of the country, not to mention other parts of the world. In the capital and its hinterland, including Oxford and Cambridge, property prices soared. In the old days, a rise in London values would, after a year or two, ripple out to the country market. Everywhere would feel the lift. This warming Gulf Stream ceased to flow around 2000. People expected a rebalancing after 2008 but it didn’t happen. New taxes frightened off some super high end foreign buyers from putting money into London but family houses and flats did not lose value, because it had become too expensive to move, constricting supply. Now? Many Londoners have noticed that their friends in the country are getting through the crisis in better comfort than them. This isn’t true of worried tourist areas like the Lake District, where this summer won’t be much better than the Foot and Mouth catastrophe of 2001. But for professionals, who can choose where they live, the lockdown has been more endurable out of town.
Many Londoners have noticed that their friends in the country are getting through the crisis in better comfort than them.
At the most basic level, there’s more space. People there have spent the exceptional run of lovely spring weather in their gardens, not pining indoors, with only the pigeons on the windowsill to remind them of nature. One country-dwelling friend said that he hadn’t noticed much difference – except that the paths he takes for his daily five-mile walk have got more crowded, due to the number of other people at home during the week. He had a huge freezer groaning with supplies. Local producers have teamed together to deliver boxes of the upmarket provisions usually sold at farmers’ markets. If country folk have to enter survivalist mode, they can grow their own vegetables. That’s not so easy in an urban flat.
So, all in all, the countryside looks suddenly a good bet. Same with those seaside towns which have been stubbornly unable to shun the adjective “neglected” in recent years. While the whole point of city life is the crowds, which cannot assemble as long as social distancing is in place, country and seaside offer a laid back quality of life – think Santa Barbara. There may not be an immediate stampede of Londoners intending to relocate on a permanent basis. But it’s easy to imagine a shift in emphasis. People who now have their main home in town and a weekend place in the country may think it’s sensible to do it the other way round.
Before lockdown, the great planning argument – where should people live? – had shifted decisively in favour of cities. City life is more efficient. Only developers thought the countryside was a good place to build new homes. Besides, people liked London, it was the only place to be. Since 2000, the population of my area, Pimlico, has increased by a third. We could now see a move towards a greater dispersal, away from densely populated areas and towards the countryside. The alarming consequence would be a rise in car use, which is damaging both to the environment and the design of attractive, community-building places to live. At present, many young people, my children included, only get a provisional driving licence to prove their age in a pub. We really don’t want a more car-dependent society.
People who now have their main home in town and a weekend place in the country may think it’s sensible to do it the other way round.
A fall in property prices in London would help buyers. But it would raise a ghoulish spectre for the chancellor of the exchequer. Overstretched homeowners would find themselves in negative equity, last seen in the 1990s. And since so much borrowing is secured against property, falls in house prices mean bad debts for lenders. Before the crisis, it was already proving difficult to build new homes in the countryside; increased pressure will be difficult to meet. The late Sir Roger Scruton chaired, then co-chaired, a commission to promote beauty in development. His recommendations could be trampled underfoot in the stampede of house builders demanding green field sites.
How to avoid these perils? I would suggest by looking at the good that has come out of these weird times. London is empty, yes – but also a million times less polluted. No traffic noise, no exhaust fumes. The roads are safe for cyclists. There are some things about the last six weeks that have been strangely pleasant. It would be tragic if, this autumn, we simply returned to the world as it was. To keep London alive, it should be a more wholesome place to live. This is what my children and their generation want.
Already, before the crisis, it was difficult to move on London’s pavements because of the jostling, determined throng of people. Now there will be a different issue: how to maintain social distancing. Councils should take a leap into the future by trialling new traffic measures and pedestrianise more roads. There are loads of them that are hardly used by cars. That will give restaurants more space for tables – not just for smokers as before, but so that tables can be placed two metres apart. Reduce on-street parking bays and make pavements wider.
London is already, in one way, a green city; there are so many trees it meets the official definition of a forest. But it has been polluted and pavement width, set long ago, aren’t equal to the feet using them. Give London more breathing space. The new normal might not be quite as hectic as before but it could offer a better quality of life. London has been the great driver of the British economy in recent decades. To paraphrase The Leopard, to stay the same it needs to change.
Clive Aslet is the Editorial Director of Triglyph Books.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe