The Covid-19 pandemic has created a potential “existential threat” to central London because many people may in future choose to work in the suburbs rather than in the heart of the capital, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said on Sunday.
In an interview in the Observer New Review, the mayor says it is issues such as this possible reconfiguration of London that keep him awake at night. He also talks openly about his struggles with mental health during the pandemic, admitting that he has found it “really hard” working from home, that he misses personal contact, including playing football every Sunday, and that lack of access to his wider family and particularly his mother has left him feeling down.
With less than six months to go before he stands for a second term in elections that have been delayed by a year as a result of Covid-19, he suggests the effects of the pandemic could be profound and lasting, changing how and where people work.
“I think we’ve got to accept the fact that there is potentially an existential threat to central London as we know it,” he says. His team is, he says, working on a number of responses to the challenges. “Are there going to be satellite-type offices in outer London because people may not want to work from home but in a co-working space in zone 5 or zone 4?” he asks.
Recent surveys have suggested many people who have worked from home since March would be reluctant to go back to commuting into busy city centres – partly because of their fears of the health consequences of cramming together on public transport, and partly because they have realised it can be more efficient not to spend so much time travelling.
Khan stresses that whatever happens, central London will remain a huge draw, with its “finance, professional services, and creative industries, it’s tech, it’s culture, it’s museums, it’s arts, it’s galleries”. But he appears to foresee big changes.
He has had a bruising time trying to keep transport in London operating, with passenger numbers falling off a cliff since the first lockdown in March, and debts mounting. He accepts he “blinked” first in negotiations with Boris Johnson over a £1bn grant and £500m loan for Transport for London that involved strict conditions, including price increases.
He has produced an “Action Plan” to address concerns in black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities about the Metropolitan police, including why they provide only 19% of new police recruits. Khan’s aim is to raise that recruitment rate to 40% within the next two years, and double the number of sergeants and inspectors.
Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. He says that when he was young he was stopped by the police between “10 and 20 times”. His father always told him never to talk back to the police. It was advice, he says, that he made sure to follow – at least until he was a defence lawyer in court. “Now, I’ve not been stopped in my car for ages,” he says. “But there is still that sensation you get when you’re driving a car, and you see a police car behind you and your heart starts beating faster. And that comes from the experiences you have growing up.”
He adds: “What’s clear from the conversations I had with black Londoners was they would rather I be ambitious and fall short than set a target just to tick a box.”
Of his own struggles during lockdown, he says: “I found it really hard working from home. I’ve never in my life worked from home. Particularly in a leadership position, it’s really hard. Lonely is the wrong word because I’m lucky, I’ve got a wife and kids, and we get on in a decent-sized house. But I thrive on company, I thrive on mixing with people, sharing ideas. Zoom meetings and Teams meetings aren’t the same.”