CBI: action needed in city centre "ghost towns"

Despite the resounding success of remote working, getting staff back into offices is as "important as getting children back to school," says the CBI's Dame Carolyn Fairbairn.

The City Centre of Manchester
The UK government must act now to encourage more office workers to return to their desks in city centres, the head of the nation's largest business organisation demanded on Thursday.Warning that many of Britain's busiest city centres had come to resemble "ghost towns" because of the explosion in remote working since the coronavirus pandemic struck, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said getting staff back into offices was as important as getting children back to school - something that is happening in England at the beginning of September and is already underway in Scotland.Writing in the Daily Mail, Dame Carolyn said, "The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business."The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities."

Coronavirus: many UK firms have no plans to ask all staff to return to the office full time

Her call came after a BBC survey this week found that 50 of the country’s largest employers had no plans to return all staff to the office full time. Another survey of major companies by Trends Research for Vodafone found only a small percentage of staff had returned to the office and that many firms were telling workers they would not be back at their desks until January at the earliest.Although the government dropped its advice in July for people to work from home because of Covid-19 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged staff to return to their offices if it was safe to do so, very few have responded to the call.While Dame Carolyn accepted that remote working had been "a resounding success" for many firms, she added, "Decisions taken over the next few weeks will shape our economy for a decade. Getting schools back is an essential component. But as important will be building the right environment to get people back into offices and workplaces."

2/3 of UK civil servants could still be working from home at the end of 2020

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party, urged Mr Johnson to "get a grip" and set an example to businesses by ordering all civil services to return to work in their offices. "Otherwise we are going to face an even worse economic catastrophe than we already are," he said.A government source told the Mail, "Getting people back to work is something the prime minister feels strongly about. It is slowly happening in Whitehall but not at the pace we would want."And a spokesman for the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, suggested that two-thirds of officials could still be at home by the end of the year. "Numbers are steadily going up but it’s not going to be huge numbers, it’s not going to be a majority by the end of the year. We’ll probably get to 30 or 40% over time," he said.Meanwhile, a CBI survey published on Thursday illustrated the continuing damage being inflicted by the pandemic on the services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the UK's GDP.

Future challenges: the UK/EU trade relationship in 2021 and beyond

While optimism increased in the business and professional sub-sector, employment, volumes and profitability continued to drop across services as a whole and particularly in the consumer sub-sector.Ben Jones, CBI principal economist, said, "Although the pace of these declines is expected to ease, the impact of Covid-19 remains clear, with the services sector still facing challenges in terms of demand, revenues and cash flow.“There is also a clear divergence by sub-sector, with consumer services seeing a particularly severe hit to activity and employment. Meanwhile, although business and professional services appear to be holding up slightly better in comparison, future challenges include what our trading relationship will look like with the EU next year.“As we head into the autumn, the UK needs a bold plan to protect jobs as the job retention scheme draws to an end, to support the services sector.” 

Read more news and views from David Sapsted

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