It’s not yet lunchtime but the queue outside Joe’s Bakery on Gloucester Road in Bristol’s northern suburbs is already growing. Five shoppers clutching canvas tote bags and rucksacks wait patiently in the sunshine on taped lines for their turn to buy vast crusty sourdough and dark rye breads or white sandwich loaves.
“I can’t remember when I was last in the city centre,” says accountant Tom Adams, 30, queuing up for some croissants. “There’s nothing there for me, to be honest. You can get all the produce you need here.”
Since lockdown began in March, Adams – like millions of people across the country – has been working from home. And, like so many of those millions, he is keen to continue doing so long term. “I’m intending not to go back as long as I can possibly manage it,” he says. “My employer hasn’t said anything concrete yet, but all the signs are that it is going to be flexible – nothing like a return to normal.”
He is not the only office worker in the queue changing old habits. “The city centre has become like a foreign land to me,” says Matthew Cockburn, 45, who works for the city council. “I’ve been once, maybe twice, in the last four months, whereas before lockdown I was there every day. Now I come here for my lunch.”
Others are wary of venturing into the city centre, despite Boris Johnson’s insistence last week that the nation’s long hibernation was coming to an end.
“I’m not going into the city centre at all,” says school caterer Catherine Howells, 58, who has been furloughed since March. “I don’t want to catch public transport. I prefer to stay local because it’s safer.”
The same scenes are taking place in the suburbs of cities across the country as employees get used to the benefits of working from home – and more employers accept the need for flexibility.
New analysis of early June mobile phone data by the Centre for Cities thinktank shows footfall in London, Liverpool and Manchester was just one fifth of what it was before the country went into lockdown in March. Cities in Scotland and Wales, where tougher restrictions are in place, have been the hardest hit: Cardiff has experienced only 12% of its usual footfall and Edinburgh only 14%.
The data shows the biggest drops have taken place in major cities, where large numbers of suburban workers with white-collar jobs have been able to use local high streets to meet their day-to-day needs. Smaller towns and cities, where more people need to travel to the centre to purchase essentials, have seen smaller drop-offs. Places such as Basildon, Aldershot and Wigan are still getting around half their usual number of visitors.
These shifts could profoundly change our cities. “Some of this may be long-lasting,” said Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities chief executive, “because people will continue to work flexibly.”
Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, believes city centres are unlikely to go into headlong decline because of their economic and cultural importance but suburbs could benefit from the changing world of work. “District centres and borough hubs in places like London could potentially see quite a renaissance,” he says.
It is a different story in city centres themselves. In Bristol’s commercial quarters, where office blocks dominate the skyline, the streets are eerily quiet. A cafe usually thronged with hungry office staff is deserted at lunchtime. The owner of Basil&Co, Davide De Leonardis, is worried about the future. “It’s been really slow,” he says. “There is literally no one here.” De Leonardis, 27, and his partner, Stefanie Cirulli, 27, used to serve around 100 people a day – now it is down to 20. They can only keep the business going for three to four months. “We have to pay rent, but there is no money,” he says.
A short walk away, a popular independent coffee shop, Baristas Coffee Collective, is also struggling. The owner, George Martin, 41, proudly sporting a “Make Starbucks History” T-shirt, says takings are down 80%. “We’re in a business area, so it’s all offices. The office next door has gone from 900 to 30 people,” says Martin, who partly opened up a couple of weeks ago. “We’ve gone from making £1,500 a day to not enough to cover the wages. Our workforce will be shrinking. Those that just started won’t be coming back.”
Keith Rundle, the operations director of Bristol city centre’s Business Improvement District, which is funded by a levy on local businesses, expects far fewer people to be working regularly in central locations.
“The indications are that half the offices in the centre will not start to come back until September and they may not bring all their staff back either, because it’s more efficient for some businesses to have people working from home,” Rundle says.
He fears this could affect many different aspects of city life. “Cities are ecosystems. They are hugely interdependent on everything else,” he says. “There is a risk that if the population which shops, drinks coffee, eats meals, drinks beer doesn’t come back in, then that ecosystem is fragile enough that it starts to wobble.”
Ellis warns that what happens to the spare capacity in city centres shouldn’t be left to market forces: “There is no way on earth that this challenge or the next – the climate challenge – can be managed by market forces,” he says. “The market doesn’t have a bloody clue what to do about it. It’s just chaos versus liveability.”