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REFLECTING ON HOW COVID 19 IS AFFECTING BUSINESS

As we enter our 5th week of ‘lockdown’ now seems a good time to reflect on how Covid 19 has impacted upon our business and the world in which we inhabit. Here are some personal thoughts.

Working from home has become de rigour now – will we ever revert back to working in offices? After four weeks I have to say I miss the social interaction and the ability to bounce ideas off colleagues, to debate and discuss face to face. We are social animals and group activity is important in work as it is in play. On the other hand I’ve become a dab hand at Teams and Zoom video conferencing and travelling for hours to attend meetings face to face will be a thing of the past I’m sure. But there’s no substitute for social interaction especially in the design community. Virtual design will never be as effective as hands on creative working and I expect there will be some relief amongst the design professions once we can get back to safe working together in a group environment. The planners will no doubt feel differently – but then they’ve never been that social! And when your neighbours kids are gagging to go back to school to be rid of Mum and Dad, you know we’re all becoming just a little stir crazy!

Some element of home working is here to stay for sure but  how is it that the worlds 6th largest economy cannot deliver an effective digital network? How many times have I heard “my connections dropped” or “I can’t get a mobile signal” or “my screen’s frozen – I’ll call you back later”. OK so we’ve got millions of kids streaming video at the same time as our architects are trying to  upload complex memory hungry data but really? How hard can it be. Roll on 5G. Since we’ve managed to turn the world upside down in the space of 4 weeks and built several Nightingale hospitals in half that time, why not get 5G up and running tomorrow?

Actually, that’s one of the remarkable things about this pandemic – just how quickly things have changed. A Tory Government investing more money in UK PLC  than a Corbyn administration would ever had done. Our ‘broken’ NHS proving just how fantastic the system really is. Communities coming together to help out each other in all sorts of different ways and, yours truly, digging a vegetable patch  and growing cabbages. Who’d have thought it!

Well I’ve been running a business for over 35 years now and I thought I’d seen it all. When eventually I retire (now looking less likely any time soon given Covid 19) I was planning to write a memoir on the ups and downs of running an architectural  practice. The highs, the lows,  the scandals and the frauds. Now I’ve got to add a chapter on International Pandemics ! And to think, this time last year it was Brexit and we were worried about leaving Europe. Now all we’re worried about is leaving home.

So how do I see the world post Covid 19? Well, not all is  negative. We seem to have created a much more sustainable lifestyle with limited vehicles on the road, no air travel, better air quality, more home cooking, etc. Will it all last? After the lockdown restrictions are relaxed I for one won’t be going into a  pub anytime soon, nor eating out in a busy restaurant, nor  taking a flight on an aeroplane unless everyone around me has been tested negative for Coronavirus or  I’ve been vaccinated. Sorry, but I’m over 60 so in a high risk category.

As for business well there’s a conundrum. No one knows for sure. All the commentators are saying different things. Sure, business will get back on its feet producing stuff but for who? Will we still be buying as many cars, holidays, houses ? I think much  will depend upon how Government reacts to the inevitable drop in confidence in the economy. A good deal of what gets built in the UK is built speculatively and on borrowed money.  OK so interest rates are at an all time low – it’s a great time to be borrowing money. But who’s got the nerve to borrow and invest (let alone lend) when the entire population is in fear of their jobs, their wealth and their savings? Even the private housing sector – charged with building us out of the last recession – has stopped building presently. Will buyers have the confidence to take out mortgages when we are through this pandemic and will the banks be as willing to lend afterwards as they were before C-19? It all depends upon job security and ultimately the health of the economy, not just here in the UK but, importantly, across the world.

The Government has acted quickly with the furlough scheme which shows just how imaginative and decisive Government can be – especially one with a decent majority in Parliament. What’s needed in my opinion is a massive injection of public money (borrowing) into state funded infrastructure including social housing, healthcare and education. This time it’s for the State to build us out of recession and inject capital to keep the country going. We did it after the Second World War – the largest investment in building the UK had ever seen – so why not do it again now?  Granted, we’ll end up paying back the loans for decades to come but so what? UK PLC is strong and we have some of the best minds in the world at work here so lets build ourselves out of this hole but do it in a sustainable and eco friendly way. We have the skills within our business to deliver if given the chance.

Oh, and one final point whilst musing. Can we please ensure the views of the majority are given proper weight in planning decisions and not just the elderly  noisy minority. Ask any under 35 year old in Oxfordshire still living with their parents or in over priced rented accommodation should we build more homes locally  and their response will be a big fat YES. With more digital connectivity now coming into the planning decision making process perhaps we could have on line public voting on development proposals. Its much more likely to engage with the younger population.

Hold on I hear you say. This is serious professional stuff. You can’t have the untrained public making decisions on complex planning matters……………………

I rest my case !

Partner Philip Waddy