Is there any point in seeking to return to the old normal on the high street when the world has changed?

A great deal of effort is being focused on bringing people back into the centre of Ipswich, but is i

A great deal of effort is being focused on bringing people back into the centre of Ipswich, but is it possible to turn back the clock to life before the pandemic? Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Last week Ipswich Central chairman Terry Baxter sent a letter to major employers asking them to get as many staff as possible back to work in their town centre offices and other premises in a bid to boost business in the heart of the town.

Will the days of thousands of commuters heading to work in London ever return? Picture: ARCHANT

Will the days of thousands of commuters heading to work in London ever return? Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

Yesterday Ipswich council gave itself planning permission to build a new multi-storey car park in the Portman Road area to serve what has been seen for years as the up and coming business district of the town.

MORE: Ipswich Central wants businesses to return to town centre offices

Both of these are laudable initiatives, but the pessimist (realist) in me suspects/fears that the events of the last six months are beyond the scope of fine words and grand gestures to reverse.

Put bluntly, I’m not sure that a town centre like Ipswich can be saved in the same form as it was when we went into this pandemic back in March.

At the time lockdown was imposed there were already huge question marks over the two largest stores in town, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer. Those question marks are now even larger – and their fate will be determined well away from Ipswich, however many office workers return.

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There are some who see this as an opportunity for the town centre to re-invent itself with more independent retailers riding to the rescue.

Is that realistic? Independents seem to have suffered even more than the chain stores. Where can you find the queues in Ipswich town centre? Outside Primark, not the beloved independent stores.

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The idea that businesses will be pulling all their staff back into offices is also unrealistic. Given the rules on social distancing which are likely to be in place for another year (scientists don’t expect a reliable vaccine to be available until the second half of 2021) you aren’t going to be able to have more than 30-50% of staff together in an office at any one time.

And if you do go for the one-metre plus option which might allow 50% of staff in at a time, that would force all office staff to wear face coverings which many people dislike.

What is an employer going to do then? Force reluctant staff in and make them wear something they don’t want to . . . or say more can work at home? I know where my money is!

Increasingly we’re hearing from employers – from councils to law firms to insurance companies – that their staff have been working well from home and they are happy to support them in that.

The overall prosperity of town centre may be seen as important for society as a whole, but where does it weigh on the scale of individual contentment? If an employee is struggling into an office feeling worried about the amount of human contact they will have to have, how good will their work be?

This isn’t just the case in Ipswich. A national report this week said that none of the country’s 50 largest employers expected to see all their staff back in offices full time for the foreseeable future, if at all! Half of them didn’t have any staff in offices and had no definite plans for any to return.

This is a national, if not international, culture change – or a rapid escalation of a culture change that had already started.

To be fair, Ipswich Central and other organisations looking to the future of the town centre accept it is bound to change with fewer shops and more homes and community-based spaces. But it is not easy to see where the investment needed will come from at the moment.

Two years ago a report commissioned by the government said Britain’s high streets had twice as many shops as they could sustain in the long term. Ipswich Central chiefs disputed the figure – but accepted the premise that town centres needed to change. The pandemic has accelerated the process of change.

MORE: Too many shops on High Streets, says report

I don’t have a crystal ball – any attempt at looking into the future with confidence is a mug’s game as we’ve all found this year.

But I would be surprised if, in 10 years’ time, the culture with people commuting to sit in an office at a computer survives on anything like the scale it does now.

Most people who work in Ipswich travel only a relatively short distance – but those who commute from Suffolk to London to sit in front of a computer screen have discovered over the last six months that they can set up that computer screen on their dining room table and still do the same work.

Then they may realise that if they don’t have to spend £7,000 a year on a season ticket they can afford a bigger house with an extra bedroom they can turn into a home office . . . and then they can get to an from work without a 90-minute commute in each direction five days a week (that’s about 20% of their waking hours).

And working from home has other side issues. You’re at home if a delivery arrives – so there isn’t the need to traipse around the shops only to find that they don’t have the shoes or the shirt in your size. I’d always resisted the attraction of online shopping. The last few months have shown me that there is an upside.

So when social distancing rules are relaxed and we can in theory go back to crowded offices, will that happen? I’m not convinced. I suspect some offices will be converted into flexible work spaces allowing people to come in once, or maybe twice, a week for meetings or just to work with colleagues for a few hours – but I don’t think we will see the number of office workers in Ipswich, Colchester, or especially in London, that society has in the past.

As in Ipswich council tax payer, I hope the investment in offices does help to drive the prosperity of the borough. But my head tells me that with so many companies discovering they don’t need to have so many people working in offices that might not be the best possible investment.

So I suspect that the dream of office workers once again flooding into Ipswich town centre at lunchtime or that a seven-storey car park in Portman Road can be filled five days a week is just that – a fantastic dream.

We are a long way off understanding what will become the new normal for society – but just looking back to the old normal and trying to turn the clock back to January 2020 really is no option.

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