Does a Christian need a church? Does a shopper need a shop? Does an office worker need an office block? We know these places help bring people together and can deepen the experience. But when the coronavirus has passed I believe the truth will be revealed. Technology means that we can perform most of these tasks from anywhere, including home.
After the first lockdown, surveys suggested that the office’s days were numbered. Since the 1990s, the internet has supposedly liberated white-collar workers from their desks, but it has taken a pandemic to truly break the ritual. When the initial lockdown ended in the summer and Boris Johnson ordered the nation back to work, surveys in July reported that most workers wanted to split their time between working at home and in the office. Even so, there was an assumption that most businesses would eventually return to almost pre-pandemic practices.
The second lockdown is making this most unlikely. This week, YouGov published a survey carried out in October, before the new lockdown was announced, which found support for the office had collapsed. A mere 7% of workers want to return to five-day office hubs rather than new hybrid arrangements. Fifty percent dislike commuting and 72% suggested comfort as the major benefit of working from home. A majority accepted that creativity and teamwork were diluted, but a quarter enjoyed having more time away from colleagues. The chief opposition was from bosses, with only 13% believing they can “manage or train teams as effectively when working remotely”.
What this means to the world of offices is already glaring. I walked through the City of London last week and it was an eerie place, as if the streets themselves had caught the plague. The market had spoken and giants were crashing. London’s Landsec property empire has just declared an £835m half-year loss and slashed its portfolio value by almost £1bn. Great Portland Estates this week reported a £155m half-year loss. The residential prices tracker, Zoopla, has rents following that trend, with strong rises in suburbs and out of big towns but already falling by 5% in London, while also down in central Manchester and Birmingham. The fall is expected to continue. Not only do many people dislike offices, they see no need to live near them.
Even if the eventual decline in office working is confined to 30-40%, the impact on cities must be intense. Those totem poles of 20th-century prosperity, gleaming glass towers crammed with worker bees, are clearly past their peak. There will be offices for essential staff, but they can be anywhere. In cities, they are wanted in smaller, bespoke units in areas of character. As rents fall in the City of London, they rise in Soho, Shoreditch and Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It’s lucky that that city kept its old buildings.
This has to be good news, ultimately. A decade of reckless London non-planning – largely under Boris Johnson as mayor – has a wild 3m square metres of speculative offices in the pipeline, three quarters of it yet to begin construction and probably useless. The waste of building resources is a scandal. Sadly, the biggest and ugliest block in the City, the monstrous 22 Bishopsgate, has just been completed. Perhaps one day it will be occupied by squatters. But at least this era can be consigned to history. Falling rents should draw more city-friendly creative and leisure activities into central areas, humanising and downscaling them.
What this means for out of town areas is more debatable. I know many people who have found being cooped up in confined spaces stressful. Modern families are seldom fashioned for claustrophobic living, especially if two people are working from home, with children tossed into the mix. At the same time, we know the pandemic has drawn people closer. Streets have changed character from dormitories to neighbourhoods. The solitude of lockdown is relieved by the sense of community. I have lost count of how many people tell me they feel they now “live in a village”.
Such living is strangely like a return to a pre-industrial age, when people did not have to travel far from home to find work. The merchant delivers to the door. Services are essentially local. These benefits are real. They mean people have more time to take on community responsibilities, as has been noted during the pandemic. Life might even return to declining institutions, to local shops, pubs, churches and sports.
One danger is clear. The Zoom generation is up and running across rural England, fleeing the cities for all it can. I have never seen more advertisements in Country Life magazine than in this summer’s Cotswolds special issue. Villages and small towns are filling up: but when everyone wants to live in rural bliss, the countryside will go the way of Middlesex and not be countryside any more. This calls for a revival of a once great British profession now all but dead – that of town and country planning. If rural Britain is to be shared by all, it will need the most careful oversight. Yet Johnson’s recent planning proposals are a retread of what he did for London – let money and capital dictate all.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist