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22 July 2020

London will survive coronavirus, but life and work in my city will be very different in the years ahead

The capital has seen off civil war, fire, the Blitz, murderous air and Margaret Thatcher. It will survive the loss of a few office workers – won’t it?

By Stephen Bush

One of the strange things about being a born-and-bred Londoner is I am part of the only community in the United Kingdom that isn’t incentivised to move away from its home town to find work. Our country’s economic model has, for most of my lifetime, funnelled people towards the capital. It, and cities around the world, have benefited from powerful headwinds in the global economy that have encouraged businesses to be as near to each other as possible – what economists call “agglomeration effects”. I’ve never had to think very much about whether to go further afield, because following my dreams – even when those dreams haven’t stretched much beyond “being able to make rent” – has always tied me to this city. It’s true to say that I love London, and like most people who have never really left their place of birth, I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. But it’s also true to say that I have never had much reason to leave it.

Part of being a true Londoner, though, is living alongside those who’d rather be elsewhere: people who are desperate to leave the city and assume that you are of the same mind. They complain that it’s too large, too noisy, too crowded; what they mean, of course, is that it’s too different from the place where they grew up.

The only downside to being a Londoner, as far as I am concerned, is the amount you are expected to tolerate other people moaning about it. If I turned up in a small village and complained about how much forward planning was involved in say, buying milk, or finding a really good restaurant, I would be considered, at the least, disrespectful. Turn up in London and grumble about anything you like, and you are forward-thinking, perhaps even brave. Do it eloquently enough and with the right social connections and you may even be able to get a book deal out of kvetching about it.

But it’s a price worth paying, because part of what makes London great isn’t only the people who have chosen to live here, but the people who, for a variety of reasons, have been compelled to. I don’t just mean immigrants – like my family, one half of which came here in the 19th century for a better life, the other in the 1960s fleeing apartheid – although they are the reason that London has so many interesting places to visit, so many different cuisines and styles of art and architecture. I also mean people like my partner, who came to this city from the country as a graduate and fell in love with it.

Even people who are only stopping through – those, to my eyes, eccentric and misguided people who are planning to trade London for a nice house back home or in the suburbs – contribute to the greatness of my city. I’ve accepted, gradually, that they are entitled to complain about its unfriendly manners, its expensive housing and the self-satisfied nature of its natives. Their grumbling is a price worth paying to keep them around – most of the time.

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But now, thanks to coronavirus, London might be about to lose its grumblers for good. We will, sooner or later, defeat Covid-19. We might wipe it out with a vaccine, or we might neuter it with palliative treatments, but one day a combination of scientific research and medical advancement will mean that we can, at the very least, treat it with no more fear and respect than we do the winter flu. We’ll be able to board a crowded Tube train, or turn up at the pub five minutes before kick-off without worrying about finding a space a safe distance away from someone, or do our jobs without fear for our lives. A great deal that is currently frozen by the pandemic will return to being as it was.

But not all of it will. While the transition to working from home has been far from perfect, particularly for people with small children or in homes of multiple occupation, it has proved decisively that the old fear of many employers – that people would not work effectively without their boss looming over their shoulders – was not justified.

More to the point, it has demonstrated what some firms, particularly in consulting and finance, already knew: that there were big savings to be made if they could persuade more of their employees to work from home at least some of the time. Meanwhile, many people have taken up cycling and running in lockdown, and will not abandon these habits whenever the crisis ends. Most big companies expect to move from a traditional office-based model to hybrid methods of working.

These are all largely positive trends, provided they don’t see workers exchange having to fight for the right to work from home for fighting for the right not to. But they inevitably mean big changes for all cities, and London in particular. Our public transport system, which relies on regular commuters five days a week to run in its present form, will come under further financial strain, either having to raise prices or cut services. City centres will be altered as businesses based around catering to office workers with nowhere else to go have to adapt to having fewer customers.

All of which means that London – my London – will be a different place after the pandemic. I believe, of course, that the capital will thrive, because I love my home and think that enough other people do as well for it to survive anything. It has seen off civil war, fire, the Blitz, murderous air and Margaret Thatcher. It will survive the loss of a few office workers – won’t it?

That’s perhaps the strangest thing about lockdown: I’ve come to understand why London’s grumblers are uncomfortable living somewhere so unlike where they’ve grown up. Of all the coronavirus changes in my life, I hope that a greater sense of empathy is one I’ll keep. 

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