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City centred or suburban slanted: how will where we live change?

Among my musings of the past three months was the observation that COVID has altered how we travel and interact in cities, suburbs and villages.

As a result, we’re seeing these places change in fleeting but also, perhaps, in more long-lasting ways.

It’s getting harder to write about anything that doesn’t stem from what we’re living through but I’m doing my best to broaden my subject matter.

This week’s blog was prompted by colleagues working from home who have had the chance to see how the patterns of our life - and the built environment it inhabits - are shifting.

I’ve mentioned it in a previous posting: how metropolitan suburbs once near-deserted in daytime are benefiting from commuters working from home, ordering deliveries from local shops or simply taking a turn around the block.

At the same time, city centres are far less crowded. Many of us have heard from friends who took the opportunity to cycle through becalmed streets, devoid of the usual roaring traffic.

Reviewing city views

Novelty aside, it presents an opportunity. Many cities have already reviewed the way in which their centres are zoned which hasn’t really changed since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

Rigidly stratified into offices, shops and restaurants, there was little, or no, provision made for homes.

But even before covid, three factors weighed heavily on this post-war model in recent years. Out-of-town shopping and leisure centres began to divert footfall away in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then came the demand for student accommodation as the higher education sector mushroomed. And this was before online commerce really began to undermine conventional retail.

More students meant new demand for urban living, relaxing the zoning principle. Among other things, this led to greater pressure on councils to rethink what had previously been commercial space. Indeed, they’ve been able to convert offices to homes without express permission for some time.

Reduced retail

Fast forward to this new decade and this process has accelerated as traditional retail reels from the effects of the virus, which has boosted further online transactions, further undermining big retailers in formerly bustling locations.

Commercial real estate investors (such as pension funds) are seeing rents fall as reductions are negotiated or payment demands simply not met.

This adds up to combined pressure to reimagine what were formerly inflexible development frameworks and equally unyielding commercial arrangements. Perhaps that’s what’s behind the government’s stated intention to revamp the planning system.

Given that it was originally put in place, in part, to make sure cake shops weren’t set up next to a glue factory, a fundamental planning overhaul is long overdue.

Tale of three cities

And this might be the time which it takes place. I’m not sure London (my home and a world capital) is the best example but Portsmouth, from where my father hailed, might be.

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, it aims to expand housing northwards on either side of the main motorway approach and owns the giant site formerly home to IBM, which it aims to populate with new business.

The main point here is that the council is the driving force in staying on course with a long-term strategy. It has effectively become a counter-cyclical developer as the private sector has understandably paused. This is a long-term approach with which most in the pensions industry can identify.

Spare a thought, too, for the city’s football club, knocked back in the division one play-offs (again), as they dust themselves off for next season’s campaign: Play Up Pompey!

Further west, Plymouth’s former city council headquarters has been sold for £1 to a developer to build 144 flats. One statistic caught my eye. Only 2,000 people live in its centre. The same number as Manchester had 25 years ago, now increased to 60,000.

Bath, too, has a company connection and while its heritage adds another restrictive layer to its planning regime, the city is considering how its heart will look and function as retail contracts.

As we step gingerly onto the cusp of a post-covid world, are we going to see these spaces change for the better in the long-term? Or is this a reversal forced on us by necessity of dealing with the economic fall-out of the pandemic? I’d be interested in your views.

Predictions of the “end of the office” are, I think, wide of the mark. As are forecasts that people who can, will lead an exodus from urban areas into the newly, if temporarily, enlivened commuter belt.

So we may see our surroundings take a different shape. It’s just that, as with so many other things, no-one has a really clear picture of what it will look like.

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As we step gingerly onto the cusp of a post-covid world, are we going to see these spaces change for the better in the long-term?

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After 40 years of experience in the pensions world, I'm sharing my insights.