To survive, shops in Britain will have to move to where the commuters are now | Gavin Chait

The relationship between high streets and workers is up for renegotiation. Let’s not waste this moment

A community is a community because of its people, and some of those people are only present because of proximity or force of habit. That twice-daily dam-burst of commuters back and forth between home and work supports the architecture of our economy, with its clusters of offices rising above jostling streets lined with restaurants, cafes and retailers.

In its current form, a sufficient mass of people must keep moving to prevent it seizing up. How many can stay home before some of it becomes unsustainable?

More disruptively, when companies reconsider their processes for supporting Covid-19 social distancing, they will review everything from offices to the inter-relationship of jobs, remaking the structure and process of work. Just because you’re at a desk and could work from home doesn’t mean that job will still be required when your colleagues shift to remote.

For the City of London, home to 7,000 but place of work for 400,000, a 10% decline in commuting could result in the migration of 17,000 office jobs and almost 8,000 retail jobs. But when people work at home they need more from where they live. Even as places like the City of London, Westminster, Camden, Manchester and Exeter experience commercial decline equivalent to the loss of 30,000 office units and 20,000 retail units, other regions gain.

This is because a home office is a temporary make-do necessity. Not all homes are suited to becoming permanent offices. Colleagues who happen to commute from the same towns may set up smaller, shared offices. Neighbours and proximate friends can as easily rent a shared space to satisfy the need for congeniality, a private room with a door and a shared coffee machine.

The London borough of Lewisham could create 1,000 new retail jobs to serve more than 2,000 office workers, adding new shops and offices as their long-term vacancy rate falls. Wyre, in Lancashire, may even need to build new units as they run out of space. These scenarios are derived from work at Sqwyre.com, an open-data economic research project I built that, over the last five years, has collated a quarterly-updated database of commercial ratepayer location data, of occupation and vacancy, for 95% of the 348 local authorities in England and Wales. Google’s mobility data for the last few months reveals that people are 20% more likely to be at home, and 50% less likely to be at their place of work. These estimates – considering a change of only 10% of those commuting – are likely to be conservative.

What is most revealed by Covid-19 is our pressing, urgent need for more open data. Public confidence requires public information. A lack of testing data meant we were too slow to put in the fire-beaks necessary to contain the virus. A lack of commercial-activity data means that everyone, from investors to government to local communities, is exposed to hidden risks.

Consider something as simple as walking from the door of an office building, taking the lift up to the 10th floor and going to a desk. If only four people are permitted in a lift at any one time, how long does it take to fill and empty an office of 20 floors? How will that be planned and executed? If office buildings decide to limit tenant numbers, that will have repercussions for the coffee shop downstairs, the dry-cleaners on the corner, and the shop people stop at on their way home to get ingredients for dinner.

Most office workers aren’t losing their jobs; they’re working from home. But a shop’s proximity to its customers is vital. Those that can’t afford to pay key workers because of a decline in trade don’t send them to work remotely, they close down. For most, working from home doesn’t mean exploring independent stores or shopping for local produce. Less than 16% of the population lives within 200 metres of a retail cluster.

And not everyone can commute easily and cheaply to the shops. Office workers are used to nipping out for coffee and a sandwich. Few will take an hour to drive to an out-of-town centre when the kitchen is right there. Plus, if we’re genuinely trying to adopt social distancing, the number of journeys will have to reduce. And retail requires consistent purchases, not episodic nervous bursts.

Without investment in communities, social distancing is an impossible challenge. If some workers must commute because some jobs remain distant, but some must remain home, even when there’s nowhere for them to shop but online, society atomises and existing online retailers dominate. We have a brief opportunity to fund business mobility; to provide grants to small businesses for the real cost of moving their existing investment in their retail stores from where people were, to where they are now. Let’s study the data and not squander this moment.

  • Gavin Chait is an open-data scientist and development economist at Whythawk

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Gavin Chait

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