Leader’s Debate: Rebuilding Central London

16 Sep 2020
11:30 am to 12:30 pm

The leaders of the City of London Corporation and Westminster Council, Catherine McGuinness and Cllr Rachael Robathan respectively, took part in our Leaders’ Debate: Rebuilding Central London webinar on 16 September.

It marked the first time that the two leaders had appeared on the same platform following Cllr Robathan’s election as leader earlier this year, and both provided their perspectives on what panel chair Professor Tony Travers described as the most challenging period for Central London in its history. The discussion also included contributions from the respective chairs of WPA and CPA, Olivia Harris (Dolphin Living) and Dan Scanlon (Brookfield).

As he opened the discussion, moderator Professor Tony Travers (LSE London) commented how during “the second world war, people stayed, and the City and West End economy continued to work despite blackouts”, compared to during coronavirus which has caused the entire City to effectively shut down on a scale never seen before.

Speaking ahead of the latest Government restrictions announced on 22 September, Professor Travers also prophetically warned that short term policy changes would make it much more difficult for London to return pre-pandemic levels of economic activity.

Whilst Cllr Robathan applauded the Government for taking immediate action to provide business rate relief, she expressed her fears that “March is looming” and that businesses may still not be in a position to “take on the full burden again”. Catherine McGuinness also spoke of a “tale of two cities” addressing how financial and professional services had successfully adapted to remote working, but reduced footfall was having a profound impact on the City’s retail and cultural landscape where most support was required.

Both leaders outlined their responses to the pandemic, which have seen significant investment in public realm improvements and pavement widening, and long-term opportunities for reducing traffic. But both feared the affects the pandemic would have on the London and wider UK economy, with Cllr Robathan observing the urgent need to get the “drivers of national economic activity which are centred in Westminster up and running again”, including the West End’s renowned theatre district. Catherine McGuiness added that the future of small businesses at the foot of office blocks is “concerning” and could affect the attractiveness of the City in the future.

More than 200 WPA and CPA members joined the webinar, and many of those online shared their thoughts on the biggest threats to the economic recovery of Central London through interactive polling.  Fears about the continuation of remote working and concerns about safety on public transport were seen as the key issues that would hinder the capital’s economy.  Nearly half (43%) agreed that financial support packages such as the business rates holiday and furlough scheme were vital in supporting Central London through lockdown restrictions.

The full results from those snap polls, taken live during the webinar on 16 September are below:

What do you think is the biggest threat to the post-Covid 19 economic recovery of Central London?

  • Concerns about safety on public transport / transport capacity – 27.9%
  • Job insecurity or pay cuts affecting consumer spending – 19.7%
  • Office workers / companies working remotely – 34.8%
  • Restrictions on international tourism and business trips – 17.4%

What initiatives have been the most successful in supporting Central London through Covid-19 restrictions?

  • Consumer spending incentives (e.g. Eat Out to Help Out) – 25.3%
  • Licensing relaxations to allow al fresco dining – 20.2%
  • Public safety measures e.g. hand sanitiser stations and requirements to wear face coverings – 6.3%
  • The business rates holiday, furlough, small business loans and other financial support packages – 43%
  • Widening of pavements and road closures – 5%
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