The boss of one of the UK’s largest insurance firms has suggested that employers in London’s financial district may be struggling more than those in other cities to persuade office workers to return to their desks as coronavirus restrictions ease.
Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General, said there were “a lot fewer people working in the City” compared with urban centres across the UK, Europe and the US, adding that it may take years for the historic streets to return to pre-pandemic levels of bustle.
“Some 525,000 people work in the City, that’s an awful lot of people,” he said in an interview from his office in L&G headquarters near Moorgate station in the City of London. “When I’m looking out of my office window, the streets look fairly empty.”
Legal & General said it had invested about £30bn in the UK over the last eight years, and in recent years has committed more funding to regional cities to help the government’s “Build Back Better” agenda.
Wilson said central London employers, local authorities and the Lord Mayor of London would need to do a “really good job over the next few years” to attract workers – who often commute long distances into the centre of the capital – to come to their offices more regularly.
He said that when travelling to other parts of the country recently he had by contrast seen a lot more economic activity in Scotland, Manchester and other areas.
Wilson, who lives a short distance from his office and walks or cycles to work most days, said the apparent emptiness of London’s streets could be also be due to the summer holidays and it would be hard to gauge any real return to the office numbers since the lifting of lockdown restrictions until next month.
“It [London] may not be as busy in the future as it has been in the past,” he said. “[But] cities evolve all the time. People forget that London was depopulating, and then boomed upwards in 1980s onwards. We are still very early days into [the reopening] and I do expect more people to be back in September. London is the best city in the world.”
“Will everyone be working nine to five in an office? No. It will be different,” Wilson said, adding that he expected most people to continue to work from home for some days a week.
Last week the owner of Covent Garden reported a further decline in the value of the central London attraction’s shops, restaurants and office buildings as the footfall numbers remain depressed and many businesses are still closed.
Property investment and development company Capital & Counties said the value of its property portfolio fell 5% to £1.7bn in the first half of the year. The estate had already lost 27% of its value last year during the height of the pandemic.
Wilson’s comments came as Legal & General reported a 14% increase in first-half operating profits to £1.08bn , ahead of analysts expectations of £999m.