This week we are trying to come to terms with the end of lockdown and the introduction of the new tiers set out in the Government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan. What seems to be missing is further guidance on when office workers can get back to the office. 

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

As the City Corporation’s Catherine McGuinness points out, “what we also urgently need from the Government is a clear plan to allow office workers to return to Covid-secure workplaces in order to get as much of the economy operating as possible. This is vital to protect livelihoods. We also need a thriving economy to help pay for the vast amount of support being provided at this time’.

I think many of us will echo this view.

With all the debate around the repurposing of retail, I touched base this week with CC London’s Adam Goldin. I am now inordinately enthused by the latest images showing how CC Land and Meyer Bergman (rebranded as MARK) plan to reinvent the unloved former Whiteleys shopping centre in Bayswater as a new £1 billion residential, retail, dining and hotel complex.

When it originally opened its doors in 1911, with its colonnaded facade and rooftop cupulas, Whiteleys caused ripples of excitement as London’s first luxury department stores and apparently the then largest shop in the world. The original store, “an immense symposium of the arts and industries of the nation and of the world” had been devastated by an enormous fire in 1887.

The rebuilt store subsequently fell out of fashion and was extensively reconstructed by Standard Life Assurance behind the original façade and reopened in 1989 as a shopping centre. Under inspiring new plans by architects Foster + Partners, this iconic building is to be transformed into 139 apartments and townhouses, 20 new shops and restaurants, a cinema, a gym, and the UK’s first Six Senses hotel and spa. I look forward very much to the unveiling of the reimagined Whiteleys, which is due to open in 2023.

Last week I wrote about broadband, which in Taiwan is regarded as a human right. I queried whether Boris Johnson’s election promise to connect the entire country to cutting edge broadband speeds by 2025 was viable. The Daily Telegraph now reports that ‘the Chancellor has delivered a ‘kick in the teeth to people living in rural areas’ by quietly dropping a pledge to connect the whole of the UK with gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, pulling it back to just 85pc.’

This is contained in the National Infrastructure Strategy published alongside the Treasury’s recent Spending Review. So you may want to check broadband capability very carefully before committing to a move to a rural location. It is likely to be a while longer before broadband becomes a UK human right.

Coronavirus office masks

Coronavirus office masks

Source: Shutterstock/ FILEOPEN CREATION

Turning to sustainability, this week we hosted a thought provoking Mishcon Academy digital event on Shaping Cities - Sustainable Solutions for the City of Tomorrow chaired by Property Week Editor Liz Hamson. We heard from some amazing panellists with wide ranging views: Brendan Wallace, Co-founder and Managing Partner of US based Fifth Wall VC fund, Stirling Prize winning architect Amanda Levete CBE, André Gibbs, Partner at Argent and Professor Carlos Moreno, the creator of the ‘15 minute city’ concept, speaking from Paris.

As I said in my introduction, despite initial concerns that Covid-19 would distract from the climate emergency, the pandemic is now being seen as a wake-up call and opportunity transform our way of life and act in a more environmentally conscious way.

There was some ground breaking content from our panellists but I was particularly struck by Brendan Wallace’s compelling analysis of how the real estate sector is going to be held to account by local and central government, capital markets and tenants. This means that climate change will be the top priority for real estate companies although at the moment, certainly in the US, it isn’t. Real estate ‘will be fined into oblivion’ if it doesn’t reduce its carbon footprint, said Wallace.

He predicts that there is going to need to be a substantial uplift in real estate spend on climate technology. I don’t know what the UK spend is, but according to Wallace, in the last decade, the US private real estate sector has only spent a meagre $100million on climate technology and this is set to rise substantially. He said that Europe is ahead of the US in terms of climate change awareness. If you weren’t able to tune in to the panel, our 15 minute highlights film will be available shortly.

Concerns about London’s future as a global city have deepened with news that London has now lost its crown to Shanghai as the world’s most important travel hub. The UK capital dropped from the top slot in global rankings to eighth place. With a 67% decline in connectivity, London has suffered harder from the Covid-19 fallout than other large cities.

Last month Heathrow was overtaken by Paris Charles de Gaulle as Europe’s busiest airport for the first time amidst criticism of the UK Government for failing to introduce a testing regime to mitigate the need for quarantine. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “European countries have been much quicker at implementing testing regimes to get their aviation sectors moving again and now we’re seeing the consequences.” Hopefully we can, somewhat belatedly, get effective testing regimes in place and turn this around. 

In last week’s blog, I looked at some of the issues of distributed working and the pitfalls of managing a hybrid workforce, so Antony Slumbers’ piece on ‘The Redundancy of Real Estate - and how to avoid it’ caught my eye. It may be a slight wind up but, as months of lockdown have demonstrated how much can be achieved working remotely, this is a timely call to action. Slumbers suggests that our job in real estate is to demonstrate why businesses should WANT an office, why an office enables businesses to do some things better than they could without an office and, of course, why one office is better than another.

As he says, ‘real estate is no longer about satisfying needs, it is about creating desire’.

Finally the London Mayor has just announced plans for a memorial garden for Londoners who have died in the Covid-19 pandemic is to be created in the Olympic Park. There are to be 33 blossoming trees, one for each of the London boroughs. The garden is being created in partnership with the National Trust and Bloomberg.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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