Office workers are the missing link in city centre recovery - Roddy Smith

As restrictions are eased in Edinburgh and with the summer holidays and Festivals upon us it has been fantastic to see the city centre getting busier again.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh
Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh

Footfall is returning slowly, albeit still below 2019 levels, and with the St James Quarter open and the Johnnie Walker Visitor centre open in a few weeks’ time, the city centre is adapting to the new environment. It has also been pleasing to see some domestic tourism return with plenty of people pulling suitcases wandering through the streets.

August has also seen the return of our Festivals, albeit in a slimmed down way due to the pandemic. The work that has gone into making them happen has been immense, and I am full of admiration as to how festival organisers, promoters, artists along with the help of the council have made this year’s Festivals happen. It is a further sign of recovery and obviously hugely significant for our city economy.

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The missing part of the city centre recovery is the return of office workers to their desks. The First Minister is continuing to express caution and advise against this at present. This to me seems incongruous when you consider you can now go to jam packed football stadiums and nightclubs but cannot be spread out in a safe office environment.

This policy is harming city centres and the many businesses who rely on the custom of people who spend their working lives in the city, buying a coffee and a sandwich, getting a new battery for their watch, buying food for dinner, or just nipping into a shop to buy some new clothes during their lunch break.

There are no business breakfasts or lunches or people meeting their friends for a drink after work. There are over 40,000 office-based workers who normally come into the city centre every day, their continued absence is contributing to the difficulties facing many retailers and hospitality businesses.

There has been much debate about hybrid or blended working and a phased return to offices, all of which is understandable as we try to get back to a more normal way of life. Each business will adapt to meet the needs of their business and their staff.

It has been welcoming to see demand for office space in the city centre is still high with some big deals announced recently. Investment is being made to make offices safe places to work, and imaginative ways to repurpose office space for new ways of working are popping up all the time.

Change in the way we work is welcome and like other aspects of post Covid life, the city centre will adapt and move forward. What we do need however, is a positive position statement and action by Government to encourage businesses to prioritise getting their staff back to offices, in a way that is both Covid secure and suitable for their own businesses.

It unfortunately seems this is way down the priority list for Government when it is ironically one of the easiest to achieve. Maybe the public sector could lead the way in this regard and make plans for their thousands of staff based in the city to return instead of leaving the private sector to move first.

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