'Surge' in demand for office space in the City of London

‘Surge’ in demand for office space in the City of London reveals bosses ARE planning the end of WFH – but experts predict new ‘hybrid’ model will see staff continuing to log-in at home but travel in for training and meetings

  • City reports big rise in planning applications for office space with 80% of last year’s total already submitted
  • Government’s work-from-home guidance set to remain in place for some months, PM’s spokesman confirms
  • Rush-hour traffic congestion levels in London today remain down on last week but slightly up on yesterday
  • Underground usage is at just a quarter of normal levels and bus usage is at half – with both down on last week

The City of London is seeing a ‘real surge’ in planning applications for office space despite the Government’s work-from-home guidance being set to remain in place for some months, officials revealed today.

The Corporation said it has so far received 80 per cent of all the applications submitted last year, although firms are looking at using their offices on different hours and days compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic.

It comes as rush-hour traffic congestion levels in London today remained down on last week, while Underground usage is at just a quarter of normal levels and bus usage is at half – with both also down on the previous week. 

TomTom traffic data for London showed congestion levels on the roads were at 52 per cent this morning, which was slightly up on 50 per cent yesterday, but significantly down on 66 per cent at the same time last week.

It was also far below the 2019 average of 67 per cent, but roughly in line with the 2020 average of 53 per cent. The congestion level represents the extra travel time for drivers on average compared to baseline uncongested conditions – so a 52 per cent figure means a 30-minute trip will take about 15 minutes more than with no traffic. 

Transport for London said there were 600,000 entries and exits on the Tube yesterday, which was 3 per cent down from the previous Monday and represented just 27 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

On the buses there were 870,000 boarding taps on Oyster or contactless cards yesterday, which was down 4 per cent from the previous Monday – but at 52 per cent of normal demand; much higher than on the Tubes.

The Government’s ‘stay at home’ order ended yesterday, with messaging now moving to ‘stay local’, but people are still being asked to continue to work from home where possible and most overseas travel remains banned. 

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair of the City of London Corporation, said today: ‘We really are expecting people to come back, but in a different way, to use their offices in a different way, different hours, different days.’

Commuters cross London Bridge in the sunshine today as the Government’s work-from-home guidance remains in place

TomTom traffic data for London showed congestion levels on the roads were at 52 per cent this morning, down on last week

Transport for London data shows how bus usage has returned closer to pre-pandemic levels faster than Underground usage

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair of the City of London Corporation, said it has so far received 80 per cent of all the planning applications submitted last year, although businesses are now looking at using their offices on different days

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, she added: ‘But we’re expecting that buzz and vitality definitely to return and indeed can’t wait to see it. Certainly the people who are servicing the office workers – the shops, the cafes and so on – if the footfall changes dramatically, that’s going to be a challenge for them.

‘But what people are telling us is that they are expecting their central office base to remain at the core of the business with people coming in three or four days, working different hours. 

How will lockdown be eased in Britain by June?

Step One Part One: March 8

From March 8, all pupils and students returned to schools and colleges across England.

So-called wrap-around childcare was also allowed to resume, paving the way for after and before school clubs to reopen.

People were allowed to meet one other person outside for recreation, for example, to have a picnic or to meet for coffee.

Care home residents were be able to have one regular named visitor.

The Government’s stay at home order remained in place, with travel for non-essential purposes still banned.

Step One Part Two: March 29 (YESTERDAY)

From yesterday, outdoor gatherings of up to six people or a larger group from up to two households were allowed. These gatherings are now allowed to happen in private gardens.

Outdoor sports like tennis and basketball are now allowed to reopen and people are also able to take part in formally organised outdoor sports.

The Government’s stay at home guidance has ended and replaced by ministers encouraging people to ‘stay local’.

People are still being told to work from home wherever possible while international travel is still banned unless it is for essential purposes.

Step Two: April 12

Non-essential retail will be allowed to reopen as well as personal care premises like hairdressers, barbers and nail salons.

Public buildings like libraries, museums and art galleries will be allowed to welcome back customers.

Meanwhile, hospitality venues and outdoor attractions like theme parks will be given the green light to reopen in some form.

However, there will still be rules on household mixing: Essentially any activity which involves being indoors will be restricted to members of the same household.

Gyms and swimming pools will also reopen from April 12 but only on the basis that people go on their own or with their own household.

Pubs and restaurants will be able to reopen but at this point they will only be able to have customers outdoors. 

The Government will not be bringing back the old requirement for people to order a substantial meal with alcohol while the old 10pm curfew will be ditched.

All customers at hospitality venues will also have to be seated when they order food or drink, with ordering at the bar prohibited.

Campsites and holiday lets where indoor facilities are not shared with other households can also reopen but trips must be restricted a single household.

Funerals will be allowed to continue with up to 30 people, while the rules on wedding receptions will be eased to allow the number of guests to increase from six to 15.

Step Three: May 17

The two household and rule of six requirements for outdoor gatherings will be ditched but gatherings of more than 30 people in places like parks will still be banned.

Crucially, mixing indoors will be allowed again. The rule of six or a larger group from up to two households will be allowed to meet.

However, this will be kept under review by ministers to see if rules could be relaxed still further.

This is also the point at which pubs and restaurants and other hospitality venues will be able to open indoors, with the rule of six and two household limit in place. But groups meeting outdoors at pubs will be allowed to be bigger.

Entertainment venues like cinemas and children’s play areas will be able to reopen, as will hotels and B&Bs. Indoor adult sports groups and exercise classes can also reopen.

Changes will also be made to sporting and performance events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half full.

Step Four: June 21

All legal restrictions on social contact are due to be removed. 

‘So we are expecting the bulk of the return. What it will mean in terms of the overall footfall we’re not yet quite clear, but we really are expecting life and excitement and people on the streets using those services as soon as they can get there.’ 

Asked about the idea of vaccine passports meaning offices could operate with no social distancing, Ms McGuinness said: ‘It’s too early, obviously if that proposal does come out people would look at it closely but they’d have to speak to their workforce. I think it’s too early to say whether that would actually take hold.

‘But whatever happens people are telling us at the moment that they want to build on what they’ve learnt through this period, that – as you’ve heard from Nationwide – they are expecting some degree of hybridity, they are expecting people to want to work from home for some days, but then to come into the office for collaboration, for training, whatever, on other days.’

And speaking about why she is confident of a return to the office, she said: ‘We are already seeing in our planning applications a real surge in interest in getting office space in the City. 

‘I think so far this year 80 per cent of all the applications we saw last year. So continued interest, continued commitment to that office space but a different way of using it.’

Work-from-home guidance is set to remain in place for some months, despite outdoor gatherings and sport resuming across England.

Asked if it was still the plan that the work-from-home guidance was going to stay in force until June 21, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said yesterday: ‘From the road map, it remains the case that people must continue to only go to work if it’s not reasonable for them to work from home.

‘Business and workers have made huge efforts throughout the past year or so to support that.’

He added: ‘The work-from-home guidance remains that we continue to ask people to only go to work if they can’t reasonably work from home.’

Asked about the Government’s long-term plan for civil servants, the spokesman said: ‘We’ve committed to consulting on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to. That consultation will be launched in due course.’ 

Last week it was revealed Nationwide had given its 13,000 office workers the choice of deciding where they want to work in order to give them more control over their lives under a huge work from home plan.

The lending giant said it would put office staff in control of deciding where they are based according to their job once Covid-19 restrictions end, after more than half – 57 per cent – said they wanted to work from home full-time. More than a third – 36 per cent – said they preferred a mix of home and office-based work.

Under the plan, Nationwide is leaving three offices in Swindon, with 3,000 staff either moving to the nearby HQ, working from home, or mixing the two. All three offices are based just outside Swindon town centre, in Aspect Park and Windmill Business Park.

Other UK staff may be able to work from their local High Street branch if they prefer, rather than travel to offices.

Also last week the London Chamber of Commerce said a study revealed that almost two-thirds of employers have allowed staff to work from home at least two days a week as a result of the pandemic.

Just over half of respondents said they will continue remote working in some form each week when the pandemic is over.

Companies across the UK are looking at how to tackle the issue of remote versus office working once lockdown ends, with many backing a hybrid model.

The work from home initiative has also seen footfall in the country’s town and city centres drop dramatically.

Office for National Statistics data shows that people who worked exclusively from home decreased in the week ending March 14 by six percentage points from the previous week, to 30 per cent.

The number of people who travelled to work – either exclusively or in combination with working from home – increased by five percentage points from the previous week, to 53 per cent.

The High Street has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic as people were told to stay inside for several national lockdowns.

Last month analysis from the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) showed 27,096 jobs have been shed and 1,023 stores have been earmarked for closure so far in 2021.

Earlier this year, economists KPMG estimated that even after lockdown restrictions are lifted, shopper numbers could be a third below pre-pandemic levels as fewer people travel to work – and ecommerce booms.

Businesses based at Canary Wharf and in the City of London have said they will follow Government guidance in deciding when to send staff back to the office.

Some, including JP Morgan and HSBC, have suggested they may move to a hybrid model of working – a combination of working from home and the office – as the Covid restrictions are eased.


Commuters cross London Bridge in the morning sunshine today with the Shard visible in the background

Commuters cross London Bridge in the morning sunshine today, one day after some Covid-19 restrictions were eased

Canary Wharf-based KPMG said the ‘vast majority’ will continue to work from home at this stage. 

Countries must unite in face of future pandemic threat, global leaders say 

The post-coronavirus world needs to work to protect the health of future generations and deal with future pandemics in a highly co-ordinated fashion, leaders including Boris Johnson have said.

Covid-19 has been a ‘stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe’ and a new treaty for pandemic preparedness and response will be needed to tackle future health crises.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a briefing on coronavirus from Downing Street’s new media briefing room yesterday

The issue has been raised by Mr Johnson and 23 other world leaders including French and German counterparts Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph and other papers across the world.

But there are some notable names missing from the list, including US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Coronavirus has led to nearly 2.8 million deaths worldwide, according to figures from the Johns Hopkins University, while 127 million people have been infected by the virus first detected in China in late 2019.

The letter said Covid-19 has been the ‘biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s’, noting the two world wars brought about an era of co-operation between nation states.

It said: ‘Today we hold the same hope that, as we fight to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic together, we can build a more robust international health architecture that will protect future generations.

‘We believe that nations should work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.

‘Such a renewed collective commitment would be a milestone in stepping up pandemic preparedness at the highest political level.’

There is a shared commitment to ‘ensuring universal and equitable access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for this and future pandemics’, it added.

There have been tensions with regard to the vaccine rollout across Europe and the UK.

Talks between the UK and the EU have been ongoing during the last fortnight on issues including jab production, after European Union leaders gave their backing to more stringent vaccine shipment controls as the bloc struggles with its rollout, but stopped short of imposing an export ban.

Downing Street has indicated that coronavirus vaccine supplies will not be shared with other countries until all UK adults have been offered a jab.

Global health leaders have previously warned wealthy countries they need to stop ‘self-defeating’ strategies and instead share their vaccines once they have jabbed their health workers and those most at risk.

A new international treaty would look to improve co-operation across a range of fields, from systems alerting about potential pandemics, to the sharing of data and distribution of vaccines and personal protective equipment.

The letter said: ‘At a time when Covid-19 has exploited our weaknesses and divisions, we must seize this opportunity and come together as a global community for peaceful co-operation that extends beyond this crisis.’

European Council president Charles Michel and World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – both of whom have put their names to the letter – are holding a joint press briefing on Tuesday to discuss the proposal for an international pandemic treaty.

Meanwhile, a report into the origins of Covid-19 is due to be released.

There have been concerns about the WHO team’s access to vital data from the Chinese government to inform their findings.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab previously said the British Government would be ‘pushing’ for China to provide full access to its data ‘not for geopolitical point-scoring or anything like that, but so we can learn the lessons and prevent it ever happening again’.

Today, the Prime Minister urged people to remain cautious as the relaxation of lockdown measures in England coincides with an ongoing ‘exceptionally warm’ spell of weather.

Across the country yesterday, people made the most of sunny conditions and the easing of rules which means groups of up to six, or two households, are now able to socialise in parks and gardens while outdoor sports facilities can reopen.

The lifting of some restrictions saw golfers return to the fairways and swimmers take the plunge in outdoor pools as temperatures rose.

According to the Met Office, the mercury reached 68.7F (20.4C) at St James’s Park in central London and Writtle in Essex on Monday – the highest temperature recorded in the UK this year.

Temperatures are set to climb further above average and could yet top 75F (24C) tomorrow in an area covering London, East Anglia and the East Midlands, the Met Office said.

Boris Johnson acknowledged yesterday was a ‘big day’ for many people as they could reunite in socially-distanced friend and family groups outdoors for the first time in weeks.

The Prime Minister said he hoped people would take advantage of the ‘beautiful weather’ to play sport or exercise, while also emphasising the country should still ‘proceed with caution’.

‘I know how much Government has asked of the people in the last year, but I also know how magnificently – incredible patience and fortitude – people have responded,’ he told a Downing Street press conference on Monday.

‘It’s my view, overwhelmingly, people are determined to continue to do that and they do understand the need for caution.’

Separately, Mr Johnson, along with 23 world leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, wrote in The Daily Telegraph and other papers across the world about the need to form a ‘new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response’, adding: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.’

Amid fears of a new wave of coronavirus spreading from Europe, Mr Johnson highlighted that it was still not clear how ‘robust’ the defences provided by the Covid-19 vaccination programme would prove if such a rise in infections hits the UK.

‘What we don’t know is exactly how strong our fortifications now are, how robust our defences are against another wave,’ he said.

‘We have seen what is happening with our European friends. Historically, at least there has been a time lag and then we have had a wave ourselves.

‘That’s why I stress the importance of everybody maintaining the discipline people have shown for so long.’

An Ipsos Mori poll suggested Britons are much less concerned about Covid-19 than they were a month ago.

The survey of 1,009 adults in early March found 49 per cent of people felt the pandemic was a big issue for the UK, down from 72 per cent in February.

Mike Clemence, associate research director at the polling firm, said: ‘Concern is notably lower among older age groups, which may suggest the vaccination campaign is having an impact on public perceptions – although worries are also lower among the youngest Britons who will not yet have been vaccinated.’

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said there was a ‘high likelihood’ cases would rise as lockdown restrictions were steadily lifted under the Government’s road map.

He added, however, that the impact should be ‘modest’ if people continued to follow social-distancing guidelines.

‘If people stick to social distancing rules and they are outside, the risk of transmission is massively lower than if they are very close together and inside,’ Mr Whitty said.

‘Provided people stick to outdoors and at a distance if it’s people who are not in their households, the impact in terms of an uptick should be modest.’

Temperatures in March have not gone above 75F (24C) since March 29, 1968, when 78.1F (25.6C) was recorded in Mepal in Cambridgeshire.

Steven Keates, a Met Office meteorologist, said: ‘If we do get above 24C it will be the highest UK March temperature in 53 years. It seems a reasonable chance that’s going to happen.’

He added: ‘It’s an exceptionally warm spell of weather with potential for some records to be challenged.’

Mr Keates said conditions would turn ‘cooler’ through Thursday ahead of the arrival of the Easter weekend.

He said Scotland’s highest temperature of the year was equalled by the 66.7F (19.3C) at Aboyne in Aberdeenshire yesterday and a new top temperature for 2021 so far in Northern Ireland was set by the 63.1F (17.3C) recorded at Helen’s Bay in County Down.

In Wales, the stay local order ended on Saturday and people were allowed to stay in self-contained holiday accommodation. The stay home order in Scotland is to end on Friday, while in Northern Ireland up to six people, or two households, will be able to meet outdoors from Thursday.

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