Focus on... cities

Updated: 12th October

How cities will change has been a constant topic of debate since the outbreak of the pandemic. The reintroduction of various restrictions, just as there was real momentum building in people returning to city centres, either for work or leisure, is another blow.

The impact of large parts of the population working from home, whether through choice or because of restrictions is dramatic on cities. Added to this, the reduction in tourism and leisure visitors, the closure of many arts and cultural venues and current opening hour restrictions on bars, pubs and restaurants has temporarily dulled the magnetic force of our cities.

We fundamentally believe that the UK’s largest cities will continue to be the engine room of the UK economy. Whilst the road to recovery will be longer than we hoped for, our cities are primed for adapting to change. There continues to be significant diversity and dynamism in our cities that underpin their strength and resilience in the face of restrictions on economic and cultural activity.

The challenges, that ultimately cities will adapt to, has also created an opportunity. As with the UK’s tourism industry, where the curtailing of flights created at least a short-term staycation boost to parts of the UK, one of the unintended beneficial consequences of restrictions around movement and work has been the resurgence of our local economies.

In some cases, the pandemic has created a boost to some suburbs, commuter locations, market towns and even secondary cities across the UK. Rather than seeing their resident population pulled away for the entirety of the working week, and often longer, people are going back to basics in terms of shopping, eating and drinking locally, even if they are not getting back to the cinema or the local theatre quite yet.

Our analysis of mobility shows that many of these markets are seeing speedier rates of recovery than our largest cities, and in the cases of our market towns, are now seeing economic activity, footfall and town centre visitors numbers in excess of what would be considered ‘normal’. Whilst this is not uniform – there are aspects of real positivity.

In the short term, this creates a welcome boost for local businesses and the economy. There are a number of anecdotes of start-ups being formed in this environment, and there are more stories of businesses –large and small –who have benefitted from the current situation.

"Long-term, cities will continue to draw people through the way they invigorate life. They provide more diverse and numerous interactions, experiences, ideas and opportunities. They will also ultimately see improvements as a result of Covid-19 –more emphasis on space and living standards, heightened awareness of wellbeing in urban design and possibly reduced pressure on massively expensive housing markets"

What is perhaps more interesting with regards to these locations, is not the short-term benefits but the long-term changes to our real estate. We are currently seeing glimpses of what that might entail –from the sharp increase in minor planning applications as homeowners look to extend their living space either by renovation, or in some cases by selling up and moving to more rural locations; or by the number of flexible office operators seeking ‘work near home’ office provision.

Long-term, cities will continue to draw people through the way they invigorate life. They provide more diverse and numerous interactions, experiences, ideas and opportunities. They will also ultimately see improvements as a result of Covid-19 –more emphasis on space and living standards, heightened awareness of wellbeing in urban design and possibly reduced pressure on massively expensive housing markets. The hope is that this is also a revitalising boost for other locations and one that will endure. This will ultimately create more balance and better places for the future. The entire industry has gone into survival mode. Nightclubs are not the only leisure premises unable to open, many theatres and music venues have also remained closed during this time. The government has announced a £1.57 billion package to protect the UK’s culture and heritage sectors, with £257 million used to support arts organisations through the pandemic and there was a noticeable sigh of relief when Arts Council England announced that the Culture Recovery Fund would be looking to support nightclubs and music venues. Although this has provided a lifeline for many, it is still a time of uncertainty with many businesses expecting to be closed well into 2021.

Selected cities, associated Commuter Towns & Market Towns

Source: Avison Young Cities Recovery Index, Google Mobility Reports

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