London is empty. Tills aren’t ringing. Soho’s bars are quiet. Canary Wharf is a ghost town.
As the Evening Standard reports today, footfall in the West End is down 63 per cent on last year, and at Piccadilly Circus it is down 72 per cent. The Tube has lost 75 per cent of its passengers. Except of course this isn’t the whole picture.
About nine million people still live here, shop here, are filling parks and enjoying the summer. The problem is specific: that the pattern of life that existed until March has been shattered. There is less to draw people into the centre. And of course there are few tourists.
Much of London is busy — but not the parts that give the city its pulse.
How do we restart it? We can’t just wait and hope.
Every urban centre on the planet is facing trouble, but London, usually connected to the world and open to everyone, is harder hit than almost anywhere.
Covid feels like a disease targeted at destroying the thing that makes our city special: the energy that comes from close human connection. Worse, those in power haven’t found the urgency needed to fix things.
Central government rarely says anything about London’s challenge. The Mayor is on the sidelines. His well-paid Night Czar, Amy Lamé, is dozing. Meanwhile our city is falling into crisis.
We’re nowhere near the disaster that hit some American cities in the Eighties — the hollowed-out ruin of Detroit with its rich suburbs and empty core — but if a lost summer is followed by a quiet winter, many shops, restaurants and theatres will be lost for good.
We need a double response: public promotion to lure people back, and serious policymaking to prepare for a different and better future.
How do we keep rents down so businesses can keep trading? How do we turn empty spaces into homes so people return to the centre? How do we manage our streets so that our air is cleaner and our city more beautiful?
There’s a lot of focus on encouraging cycling, which is good, but that won’t fix London’s problems. The policy response needs to be a lot more ambitious.
If it can’t come from politicians, then it needs to come from all of the rest of us: London’s businesses, cultural centres, and the creative energy of its people.
Together, we can save the city.
Schools must reopen
Schools are out for summer. When will they be back? Interviewed this morning, a junior minister insisted they will open in the autumn.
“That is not up for debate,” he claimed. Of course he had to say that — but it doesn’t make the full resumption of classes certain.
If infections in Britain follow the path seen in some other countries which opened up before us, the pressure to keep schools shut will grow. Unions will become unhelpfully noisy. Some parents will worry.
The Government must prepare for these doubters — and prove them wrong by making classes safe.
Children need to be back at school. If they don’t return in September, what hope would there be of any full reopening of schools this year at all?
To make it work we need clear plans, quick and reliable testing and co-operation. Yes, there should be a debate: about how to open schools, not whether they should open at all.