The City of London is dying on its feet – JEFF PRESTRIDGE returns to the ghost town streets


For the past quarter of a century, I’ve spent my working life flitting around the City of London in pursuit of stories. 

It’s been a privilege and a joy – and continues to be so. 

I’ve grown to love the City with a passion – its electric buzz, its eclectic mix of churches built by people such as Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and numerous burial grounds. 

And, of course, its healthy dose of wine bars and fine restaurants in which I have very occasionally overstayed my welcome.

Much to my joy, I continue to discover new alleyways and quiet squares where you can spend a few minutes in contemplation – my latest being Postman’s Park, near the Museum of London, where there is a little-known but moving memorial to some of the Londoners who sacrificed their own lives to save others. 

The likes of William Donald, a 19-year-old railway clerk from Bayswater in West London, who in July 1876 was drowned in the River Lea saving a ‘lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed’.

Then there’s Change Alley, where shares were dealt in the South Sea Company, leading to the South Sea bubble of 1720. 

And a stone’s-throw away, St Michael’s Alley, home of London’s first coffee house in 1652.

Deserted: The normally buzzing streets of the Square Mile are chillingly empty since coronavirus struck

Of course, there have been moments when I’ve felt extremely frightened – the IRA bombing of April 24, 1993, which caused £350 million damage to the City’s banking centre, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005.

Even though it’s more than 27 years ago, I remember vividly working on that Saturday morning in the City offices of a national newspaper when the building was shaken to its foundations by the bomb that went off just half a mile away on Bishopsgate. 

It was as if an earthquake had struck. Personal finance suddenly didn’t seem that important.

There have also been times when I’ve felt angry at the City’s excesses – in particular its part in bringing about the 2008 financial crisis that plunged the country into recession, a horror we had just about emerged from before coronavirus struck like a saw-scaled viper.

Yet the negatives have been far outweighed by the positives. Indeed, until coronavirus came crashing into our lives, I had so much fallen in love with the City that I had lived on its fringe (Limehouse) for eight years. 

Cycling everywhere on a ‘Boris bike’, running through its streets and absorbing as much live theatre, film and music as I could possibly fit into my life.

And most wonderfully of all, watching the boats go by on the River Thames from the bedroom of my somewhat dilapidated flat. 

Party boats, cruise ships, naval ships, tall ships and police boats with their flashing blue lights. I even witnessed the occasional body being removed from its chilly waters.

Sadly, though, I fear the City I have grown to love has been taken away. Coronavirus has emptied it of its soul. 

Of course, the parks are still there, the churches are still standing and tides on the Thames ebb and flow, but there is an eeriness about the City I’ve never experienced before. 

It’s dying on its feet and I’m not sure it will ever return to its former glories.

The other day, I travelled into the City for a routine health check from my new home in Berkshire. 

The train journey in was quiet, but given that I’ve been working from this newspaper’s West London offices pretty much full-time for the past couple of months, that was nothing unusual. 

Most days that I’ve travelled into work, I’ve had a carriage to myself.

But what I was not prepared for was what greeted me in the City: a deadly silence and a dearth of living, breathing people. 

Normally, at 9am on any working day, the City is awash with office workers scurrying in to work with their gym bags and takeaway coffees.

London's Regent Street and Oxford Circus (pictured) have been deserted during the coronavirus outbreak

London’s Regent Street and Oxford Circus (pictured) have been deserted during the coronavirus outbreak

Sadly, not this time around. I was a small fish swimming in a vast, empty pond. 

If I said I walked past ten people in the half-mile between Bank Tube station and the approach to Liverpool Street station, I would be exaggerating. 

The City resembled a ghost town. More like a scene from the 2007 film 28 Weeks Later when London was ravaged by a ‘rage’ virus. 

Yes, a smattering of coffee shops were open, but there wasn’t a queue to be seen. I walked into one, and was treated like a long-lost friend.

Maybe the City will regain its heartbeat once coronavirus has been conquered, but I’m not so sure. 

I’ve spoken to dozens of investment managers who would normally be working out of pristine offices in London. A

ll bar one are now working from home, and none seems to be in a particular hurry to change things.

They argue that provided they’ve got all the technology that allows them to access up-to-date data about the portfolios they manage, and they can speak to key personnel at the companies they are invested in (via Zoom), they can perform their role working from their study, attic or garden shed. 

No draining commute. No wine bars to tempt them after their day’s work is done. More time spent with their loved ones.

Many I’ve spoken to have said they will not be venturing back until next year – and then only if coronavirus has been tamed. And they have the blessing of their employers.

Oxford Circus pictured with no traffic or pedestrians. The busy shopping district is normally gridlocked with human traffic

Oxford Circus pictured with no traffic or pedestrians. The busy shopping district is normally gridlocked with human traffic

Some investment companies such as Schroders have already said flexible working is here to stay. They argue they no longer need everyone to be bound to the office desk. 

Indeed, a survey of company bosses by the Institute of Directors last week indicated that more than half of organisations are intending to trim back their long-term use of workplaces.

If the IoD is correct, it will lead to workers depopulating city centres up and down the country. The ramifications will be enormous. 

Shops, sandwich bars, restaurants and wine bars will all close as business dries up. That process has already begun, as I witnessed.

As former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said in response to firms such as HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Pricewaterhouse Coopers postponing plans to return more employees to their offices: ‘Smaller businesses cannot be up and running unless the big companies get their staff back to the office.’

He added: ‘It’s deeply unpatriotic of them to stay away from their offices, causing chaos for those businesses which rely on them and their staff. It will lead to massive job losses.’

In London’s case, Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan seems content to let the City die on its feet rather than help it battle its way through the pandemic.

The streets of London resemble a ghost town as people stay away due to the threat of Covid

The streets of London resemble a ghost town as people stay away due to the threat of Covid

Indeed, he would prefer the great capital he presides over to go into virtual lockdown with a ban on household mixing – even if the economic and social consequences would be awful. 

Khan has already responded to the pandemic by extending congestion charging to seven days a week – and for longer hours. Together with new 20mph speed limits, he’s turned London into a no-go area for many drivers.

No doubt there will be some of you who will not be bothered by the City’s demise. You will associate it with wealth creation for the few, not the many. Greed uber alles. Understandable, but wrong.

The City of London is one of the few remaining jewels in our economic crown. It looks after most of our pensions, Isas and investments – and it works at its best in an office environment where workers sit side by side, exchange ideas and learn from each other. 

It’s a point that was eloquently made last week by James Dyson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

For the financial wellbeing of all of us, we need the City of London back functioning again – for its offices, streets and bars and shops to be busy (social-distancing rules notwithstanding) and for its ‘buzz’ to return. 

Not 28 Weeks Later but now, before the City goes the same way as our coalfields and swathes of our manufacturing base – down the proverbial pan.

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