Now almost all restrictions on social distancing have been lifted in England, we can start to see what changes have happened in our cities, and take a guess to whether these changes are permanent.
Some trends were already apparent before March 2020. For example, many of the large chain stores were struggling for years, and are now permanently closed. New, smaller shops have started up, mainly selling interior goods or takeaway food.
The restaurants and pubs have reopened, but often for only a few days a week. There is a staff shortage, not just due to employees having to stay away from work because of coronavirus. For some restaurants, half their staff had come from EU countries, and those staff have now returned home. Young, British people are not interested in the long hours and low pay, and lack of career prospects in the hospitality sector.
People are very happy to be able to eat and drink out again, of course, but nervous about being in crowded indoor spaces. Many cities decided to take advantage of the lockdown period, to set up more so-called “low traffic neighbourhoods”. This means that large plant containers and railings are erected, narrowing the roads and enabling the cafes and bars to put tables and chairs on the wider pavements.
Low traffic neighbourhoods have not been universally welcomed. There are concerns that business will be affected if customers cannot now park nearby. There have been incidents where fire engines and ambulances have to take longer routes to get to emergencies. The British weather is not ideal for eating outside, but the British have been so determined that they just wrap up more warmly and sit outside under umbrellas and tents put up by the cafes, even in the wind and the rain.
British cities are starting to look more like continental European cities, as a café culture emerges. A property developer confirmed to me that this was also a pre-coronavirus trend. He used to be a nightclub owner, but realised that clubbing was a dying industry. Supermarkets selling cheap alcohol means that young people “pre-load” on alcohol at home before going out, rather than spend a lot of money on expensive drinks at nightclubs. They would rather meet in pubs and cafes with no entrance fees. They find people outside their friendship group through online dating sites rather than nightclubs.
Our city council had tried to create a “night-time economy zone” ten years’ ago, clustering the nightclubs on one road, so that they could be policed more easily, and the noise contained within one area. We live not far away from this road, and when we first moved to this city 7 years’ ago, we used to suffer from music being played too loudly, later than allowed, from various venues. Now one of the nightclubs is a vegan restaurant, another is being converted back into apartments and a third has become a serviced office building – with a café on the ground floor.
This article was originally published in Japanese in the Teikoku News on 8th September 2021
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