As the UK gradually emerges from lockdown, the deserted streets of London are beginning to show hints of their former vibrancy.
But a return to normality will be far from straightforward.
Not only has London been left reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is still working through the fallout from Brexit, which has sparked a bitter rivalry both domestically and with our neighbours across the Channel.
City A.M. spoke to leading London business figures and brand experts about how this dual shock has impacted the capital’s status as a commercial and cultural powerhouse, and what can be done to ensure its future success.
No city has escaped the impact of the pandemic, with the global shutdown bringing business, cultural life and travel grinding to a halt. London, however, has also been contending with a reputational change following its departure from the EU.
In some ways, the capital has proved resilient. London was voted the world’s most “magnetic” city for the ninth consecutive year, according to the latest Global Power City Index published in December. But UK-wide reputational damage caused by Brexit, as well as studies suggesting an exodus from London, have put this future status at risk.
A survey of more than 500 Londoners by market research firm Onepulse, conducted exclusively for City A.M., showed more than a quarter believe London will become less important on a global stage over the coming years.
More than 27 per cent of respondents said it would be overtaken by other European cities such as Amsterdam. That compared to a fifth who said the capital would become more important and a third who did not expect any change.
John Dickie, interim chief executive of London First, says the capital has a “strong international brand and that hasn’t changed”, but warns that “Brexit has hit our reputation as being open for business”.
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chambers of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), points to a feeling that “we’re still at war with Europe and Europe is still at war with us”, adding that it would take time to restore relations.
“The fact is London’s services were really accessible,” he says. “People felt they could come to London and deepen their global reputation, people came here to be in the arts, to create companies, to do trade… they did that because they felt that coming to London they were part of the world rather than simply part of the UK. I think that reputation has taken a bruising.”
All work and all play
For some, however, London’s departure from the EU — and its emergence from the pandemic — represent an opportunity.
Earlier this year chancellor Rishi Sunak told City A.M. the Square Mile could be set for a “Big Bang 2.0”, pointing to opportunities in new markets and other changes such as a review of listing rules.
The LCCI’s Burge argues that London should focus on Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) issues — an area taking on increasing significance in the financial world — pointing to the city’s renowned judicial system.
“If we can create the system by which ESG could be properly measured, validated and verified… if we could be the source of that, that would be game-changing for the world,” he says.
But the focus is not all business and, as the chancellor acknowledged, the City’s “culture and creativity” will also play a significant role.
The arts and culture sector has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and the City of London Corporation earlier this year warned of a “cultural catastrophe” facing the capital.
So breathing new life into London’s cultural life will, London First’s Dickie says, be “critical”.
“London’s economic heft is underpinned by the diversity of our cultural activities – from opera at Covent Garden to productions in the back of the King’s Head pub in Islington; from art galleries to street art; from Mayfair clubs to clubbing in Hackney,” he says.
This was underlined by the Onepulse survey, which showed 36 per cent of Londoners support creating a 24-hour entertainment culture in the capital.
Lisa Riordan, creative director at events company Imagination, says in the short-term brands have an opportunity to embrace hybrid events in person and online, as well as engaging in more outdoor experiences.
“People are already making the most of London’s green spaces to socialise and brands should learn from this to reach their customers. We think that outdoor festivals and exhibitions in the city will be key to restoring London to its former social-self.”
London for locals
London’s rebirth, however, will not only be about its status on a global level – the city will also have to ensure it remains an attractive hub for the people who live and work here.
As businesses shift to more remote working patterns – and Londoners begin to adjust their priorities – the capital must find new ways to appeal.
In a major new programme, the City of London Corporation this week unveiled plans to create at least 1,500 new homes by transforming empty offices into flats, with some space set aside for artists and musicians. Other innovative ideas include an all-night festival, as well as traffic-free Saturdays and Sundays.
Burge welcomes the proposals and says they should be extended across the entire capital.
The plans were echoed among Londoners in City A.M.’s survey, almost half of whom said more urban green spaces and community gardens were key to the capital’s revival.
A seven-day-a week during the week, cheaper train fares from other parts of the country and improved cycling and walking infrastructure were also suggested by respondents.
Overall, then, London is faced with the challenge of reinventing itself not only on a global stage but also closer to home, and a sweeping reassessment of how the city is designed for its inhabitants could be in order.
There is one thing, though, that the experts agree on: London will need a major new marketing campaign to showcase everything it has to offer. “We need to sell the sizzle of our city,” says Dickie.