Have we passed peak London?

Clouds over London. Image: Getty.

London has grown steadily for the past 30 years, in people, jobs and self confidence. Population growth has been driven both by in-migration (more people moving to London than moving away) and by natural change (more births than deaths). International migration – both EU and non-EU – has been a major factor in the city’s growth, outweighing domestic migration, where London has been a net exporter of people.

For some, London’s growth should be celebrated as evidence of its success as a global city: it’s a jobs machine; an economic powerhouse; a gateway to the UK; a generator of fiscal surpluses for the whole nation. For others, London is a “dark star”, draining the rest of the UK of people, talent, public spending and media attention. Its growth is seen as unnatural and unbalanced, leading to a large and increasing gap in opportunities, wealth and income between London and the rest of the UK.

These debates are familiar and entrenched – but perhaps they are becoming out of date. There are already some indications that London is at the edge of a major inflection point: could it be that, rather than continuing to grow, London is about to stall, or even go into decline?

Prime and decline

For much of the 20th century, London was in decline. After World War II, the city’s manufacturing and goods-handling economy faltered. Between 1966 and 1974, London’s manufacturing employment fell by 27 per cent - a loss of 390,000 jobs. Planning and economic policy favoured dispersal, more balanced regional growth and the creation of New Towns and Garden Cities outside of London. The capital’s population declined most rapidly in the 1970s: over the decade, the capital experienced a net loss of 740,000 people – that’s 10 per cent of the city’s population.

Few, if any, commentators foresaw the change that came in the mid-1980s, as the long decline in both population and jobs slowed and then reversed. Sentiment began to shift; London began to look like a place to be, rather than a city to flee. The completion of the single market, freedom of movement and EU expansion helped London to develop a specifically European economic and cultural role, alongside its status as a global city.

Globalisation – the easier movement of people, goods, services, money and ideas across borders – boosted London’s role as a centre for communication and control, and as a meeting place within the world economy. Language, time zone and cultural assets all helped. English became the global business language. London’s working day helpfully overlaps with Asia in the morning and with North America in the afternoon. And the city’s liveability, cosmopolitanism and cultural offer all made it attractive as a location for decision-makers, skilled workers and students. Complementing this economic growth, by the turn of the 21st century policy shifted to favour cities.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it is much harder to decide if we are now approaching a move in the opposite direction. There is some evidence of this: in the year to mid-2017, London’s population experienced the slowest rate of growth in over a decade, at only 0.6 per cent. International migration to London has declined to a net gain of only 83,000 individuals in 2016-17, though it remains the largest contributor to growth in the capital.

National Insurance Number registrations by people coming from overseas to work are dropping, with EU registrations falling 25 per cent year-on-year to the first quarter of 2018. Net internal migration saw a balance of 107,000 people leave London for the rest of the UK, more than 14 per cent higher than the previous year. Over 4.7m international visitors came to the capital in the final three months of 2017 - a noticeable 5.7 per cent fall compared with 2016.

Slowing down? Image: Merlijn Hoek/Flickr/creative commons.

Passenger journeys on public transport are also decreasing slightly. Falls in ridership may be an early sign that London is at or close to reaching peak growth. Or they may be driven by other factors – for example by changing work or commuting patterns, generational differences in housing choice and lifestyle or the rapid rise of ride-hailing apps.

Still the main attraction

Yet despite concerns over the impacts of Brexit, London’s economy has proved resilient, with unemployment continuing to fall and job numbers increasing. The number of jobs increased to 5.863m in the final quarter of 2017, a 98,000 (1.7 per cent) increase from a year earlier and a new record-high. The employment rate in London stood at 75.2 per cent in the three months to March 2018, also a record high. Job growth is predicted to continue, as job vacancies in the capital have reportedly increased by over 14 per cent in the year to the second quarter of 2017.


London continues to be the most productive region in the UK, although many new jobs have been created in low-pay and low-productivity sectors. And it’s still a very competitive destination for investment. In the EY 2016 European Attractiveness Survey, 57 per cent of almost 1,500 business leaders sampled put London among the top three cities for foreign direct investment in Europe.

So is London’s long boom finally coming to an end? Like any demographic or economic turning point, this one will be easier to spot in hindsight. If current trends continue, then London’s growth may slow considerably - or even perhaps reverse - over the next 30 years. Brexit could affect this in unforeseen ways - although the economic impacts of Brexit are likely to be worse outside London than within. And for the time being, London is still growing in terms of people, jobs and economic activity.

The Conversation

Mark Kleinman, Professor of Public Policy, King's College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.