New London Architecture

COVID-19 could trigger ‘radical’ planning and tall buildings rethink

Friday 01 May 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

London will have to innovate by using more off-site construction and significantly adapting public transport, offices, homes and working hours if it is to avoid a ‘depression’ rather than just a recession caused by COVID-19. But the pandemic may signal the end of tall buildings, and government could take the opportunity of threats to the economy by ‘radically’ reforming the planning system.

Those were some of the key thoughts to emerge from State of the Market – a webinar run by NLA this week which posed scenarios arising from the COVID-19 pandemic on construction, development, procurement and design.

Gardiner & Theobald partner Nick Rowe presented a snapshot of how the disease is impacting on construction, even if it changes ‘on an almost daily basis’ and the industry had been ‘somewhat buoyed’ by government’s commitment to HS2. Keeping construction sites open is critical to kickstart the economy, he said, and 61% of sites remain open in London. 

But while full capacity is not expected to return until 2021 and work has stopped at 29% of all UK construction sites there has been a significant increase in detailed UK planning approvals during March compared to any of the previous 12 months, suggesting the long-term pipeline is holding steady. The key to recovery from the crisis Rowe said, was in ‘supply chain resilience’, along with greater investment in, and use of, more MMC and forging greater collaboration across an industry which has been ‘notoriously fractured and disconnected’. ‘Innovation and new thinking will undoubtedly come from the crisis’, he said.

Alexander Jan, Chief Economist at Arup, said that central London’s economy employs 1.9 million people and generates £200bn of output, around 11% of the UK’s figures. Central London would normally be very resilient to come out ahead of the pack, but Jan said he was cautious about this time because of its admirable high density and dependency on public transport ‘now looks like an Achilles heel’ for its economy, depending on the policy of social distancing that will be employed. Cities like Boston have responded by expanding public transport services to allow for more distancing but the other option could be a more ‘rationed’ system through pricing. ‘And in real estate you could imagine a world in which a lot more real estate is provided to allow that reduction in density’, he said. The average worker in central London has seen a 20% reduction in floor space allocated to them over the last 20 years. Shared workspace models in particular will therefore come under pressure, but perhaps another idea would be to look at a more distributed, polycentric view of London, or with changed working hours putting less pressure on public transport. 

Cushman and Wakefield chair of UK and Ireland Digby Flower said that the occupational market was enduring lockdown ‘better than anticipated’, with US law firm Covington and Burling committing to 86,000sqft in 22 Bishopsgate last week for example. But the investment market has ‘suffered a dramatic fall in transaction volumes’, a quicker fall than with the global financial crash owing to a lack of stock and problems of rent collection falling to 40% in some retail portfolios and solvent household names on the high street ‘cynically not paying their rent’. ‘The future is about the return to work’, he said, which will entail office working with social distancing at occupational densities half what they were, the likely wearing masks on public transport, staggered working hours and split working patterns. In the office lifts, stairs, desking and meeting areas will need demarcation, with new protocols for cleaning, AC, and food preparation. This will need effective briefing of staff and a careful attention to their emotional responses.

Bartlett Real Estate Institute chair Yolande Barnes suggested that while we do want to be social and together the question is how much spatial distancing there will be and for how long. ‘ This qualitatively changes our ideas about space’, she said, and how inadequate some housing environments are and how pleasant others are, including balconies and gardens or even conventional streets. Local satellite hubs and mixed use neighbourhoods will potentially prosper in a dispersed polycentric city, and London’s population will likely fall, while planning use classes and tall buildings may have reached their peak. 

‘I have real worries in the commercial world about how lettable anything over six floors will be’, she said. ‘It could well spell the end of tall buildings, at least for a short while). ‘We are looking at a very different sort of new and normal’.

Prof Tony Travers, Director, LSE London said this is a bigger event to affect London since WWII, and will likely similarly recover albeit having affected the city and its people. Tech, lawyers and other professional services have been affected less than those affected by a falloff in visitors to the UK, for example, such as leisure hotels restaurant, and Higher Education, which will be in for a ‘very rough time’. Planning staggered travel and longer opening hours will require changes to the planning system and there may have to be a restart tax package or stamp duty holiday for construction to kickstart the economy. ‘London is going to feel this very severely’, he said. But they will also affect London’s global competitors like New York, Paris, and Tokyo. ‘It is easy to forget the scale of the hit that the UK economy and other European economies have taken’, with GDP levels not getting back to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest: ‘more like a depression rather than a recession’. 

Asked about the draft London Plan and its relevancy now, Travers also predicted that government would take the opportunity of the COVID-19 challenges to bring forward tax breaks and planning reforms. ‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the government doesn’t see what’s just happened as an opportunity to have a fairly radical reform of the planning system’, he said. ‘There are just enough straws in the wind’.


Missed out on the webinar? You can listen to a recording here


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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