It may be premature to anticipate the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the economy and consumer behaviour, but there are a few implications that will be hard to reverse and some may have unintended and positive consequences on our lives and local communities:
- Schools out forever: Not just for summer, and not just schools. Like them, universities can no longer rely on lucrative foreign students or captive post codes and will have to work harder to engage and attract local enrolment. And without the experience, personal development and fraternity of direct participation third level education, how can the fees, already the subject of debate, be justified? The additional revenue streams around accommodation and student services is also highly vulnerable. Watch out for amalgamation and accelerated integration with business as universities evolve their commercial models for survival.
- WFH: Government and Professional services firms have adapted quickly to home and remote working regimes, and in many cases enjoyed productivity gains not to mention rent savings. This bodes well for towns and regions that have experienced leakage of skills and spending to cities and larger business centres and has normalised ‘WFH’ which many employers had not fully embraced or offered as one-way flexible benefit. Towns can gear up to engage with these remote workers through co-working hubs, hospitality and leisure offers. The gain for towns will leave a gap for cities however as vacancy rates will inevitably rise and creative solutions will be required.
- Click and burn: yes Amazon and its ecommerce rivals have all done exceptionally well from the pandemic, on line purchases have doubled in 3 months, but there has also been a re-engagement with local shops and a re-evaluation of the essentiality of products with many food airmiles and the exploitative and wasteful nature of fast fashion. Every £100 spend in the local community generates £500 on economic impact, while online reciprocates zero. And there is growing distrust in relation to some of the online platforms and their lack of governance in relation to propagating misinformation and exploiting personal data.
- Local heroes: the weekly recognition of the contribution of healthcare workers, and the volunteering spirit of many communities to support essential services and vulnerable people has reconnected many neighbourhoods and communities in the way the parish hall might have done 50 years ago improving social cohesion and trust. Platforms like Next Door are becoming the mediators of local news, services and community initiatives.
- Staycation: Although the tourism and hospitality sectors are the most acutely affected by lockdown and will be slower to recover, there will likely be a significant bounce in domestic tourism and day trips which will boost local economies provided they can rebuild their offer and provide the infrastructure (beds and connectivity) for this growing captive market. Might be hard to persuade a developer to built a hotel in a climate where occupancy has been zero for last 4 months.
- Pride: spending more time at home has underlined the value of place and from tidy gardens to clean homes and sparkling cars, there is a national mood of renewal which extends to high streets, parks and local communities. The Towns Fund and High Street initiatives will get extra momentum from this movement of regeneration and reconnection with local. Towns will move up the attractiveness scale as places to live and work – which will help as part of the overall rebalancing agenda.
I would be willing to bet that those communities who recognise and respond to these societal and business changes will see improved economic fortunes, a revitalisation of the fabric of their places, and a reverse of many decades of depopulation and neglect. Phoenix from the ashes.
Phoenix is an new recovery initiative from OCO aimed at towns and communities, get in touch if you want to know more.