The Heart of London area is one of the most culturally rich districts in the world, sitting at the centre of the West End and critical to the UK’s heritage.
The world-famous Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus are the epicentre of London’s cinema, theatre and entertainment industry. Piccadilly and St James’s are quintessentially British and home to some of the world’s leading hotels, restaurants and cultural attractions. More than 200 million visitors each year are normally drawn to the area and its one-of-a-kind experiences.
Describing this mix of uses and sectors as an ‘ecosystem’ has become almost clichéd, but that’s because it’s such an apt description for a geography of interconnected business types that all depend on one another.
Interconnectivity can be a great strength. But in downturns, contagion can quickly spread. And coupled with some unique economic factors in London – high overheads and low numbers of residents – it meant central London was disproportionately hard hit by Covid.
Furlough, lockdowns, tiers, curfew, business rates, cultural sector grants, business loans and rent collection are among the issues we’ve been speaking to government about since March 2020.
In normal times, the combined investment of property owners and occupiers in the Heart of London area would have allowed our Business Improvement District (BID) to put in place an ambitious plan to shape a world-class destination, in addition to our operational duty to ensure a safe, clean and healthy environment. However, when Covid hit, our conventional role as a BID had to shift significantly to a focus on championing our members’ interests and addressing the issues affecting their businesses and properties.
Despite the financial uncertainty and difficult operating environment at the start of the crisis, there was actually no better time for our BID to be communicating with the government on behalf of our members. We saw ministers in listening mode, adapting and amending financial support measures as the situation evolved. Although they did not always get it right, the government sought to be an active participant in helping to avoid adverse impacts where possible.
In the process, we’ve educated policymakers, businesses and consumer audiences about the role of BIDs in the UK economy, and demonstrated why BIDs are uniquely placed to help drive recovery.
Now that some economic vibrancy has returned, we can say with certainty that our policy asks, plus those of other BIDs up and down the country that will have their own local challenges, will not conclude with the end of the crisis period. The trading environment in London remains difficult, with reduced footfall for potentially several years to come, resulting in significant reductions in revenue for members, who in many cases have accumulated significant debts. The move towards homeworking, and a decline in overseas tourists, will also have a profound impact.
While it has been important for us to prioritise urgent issues in recent months, now is the time to start communicating to government what a longer-term policy landscape should look like. Issues on which the business sector has made limited progress, but the government knows are widely unpopular, are now ripe for reform. Business rates immediately spring to mind, particularly as temporary relief for business draws to an end. Awkward planning laws also fall into this category.
As the government begins to consider what comes next, it will need to listen to businesses and industry, who are best placed to articulate the measures that will help them flourish rather than just survive. Tax will clearly be important, but so will ensuring the service sector has the skills and resources that it needs. Above all, businesses in the capital and across the country will need clear, consistent guidance in order to plan for the future and restore confidence.
For the Heart of London, what matters most right now is getting footfall back in central London, ensuring people can come and visit safely and enjoyably, and ensuring our businesses are well placed to lead the UK’s economic recovery. And underpinning all of this is what drives us as a BID: helping our members thrive and prosper.
Ros Morgan is chief executive of Heart of London Business Alliance