In the post-virus UK, many cities’ dependence on density risks becoming a threat to their ability to function. The path to some sort of new normality is likely to be long and winding. To get there will require policies and programmes that may well need to be radical and innovative. These may range from building up centres of business activity outside of the centre to permitting much more office space in the middle. There may be case for major expansion of public transport provision to reduce overcrowding or for rationing its use to achieve the same aim. Longer opening hours for retail and entertainment could ensure shops and the creative industries survive, although residential areas would need to be safeguarded. And then there are the financial challenges of collapsing fare box revenues and a business rate system that has been turned upside down. New taxes and charges may need to be found – old ones abandoned or pared back.
More than ever before, Britain’s major cities will need to be allowed to come together with residents and businesses to address these challenges. To do so will require local government to be provided with greater powers, flexibility as to how it operates and access to the resources needed to secure recovery. Central government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has shown yet again how difficult a one-size fits-all approach can be to delivering on the ground.
If there are early lessons to be drawn from abroad, one of them appears to be that strong regional and local government institutions have helped national governments deliver public health services more efficiently and effectively. Now more than ever, Whitehall needs its major cities to recover to help return the national economy and its battered public finances to health. It should do whatever it takes to allow our city leaders to get on with the job.