By Peter Martin  |  Feb 02, 2021

Breathing life back into London

London’s economy received a small vote of confidence this month with the news that ExCel, the giant exhibition complex in Docklands, not only wants to reopen for business but to grow in size with new space and facilities.

Since the start of the pandemic its halls have stood largely empty as the international events sector became one of the first to be hit by show cancellations and closures.
Although having been kitted out as a Nightingale Hospital early in lockdown, and in recent days becoming a vaccination hub, the site has remained underused and virtually deserted – a striking symbol of both Government failings and the wider damage done to the nation’s business life.

So the announcement that ExCel’s UAE-based owners, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, is to start of a public consultation on proposals to modernise and increase the venue’s total event space by 25%, to help it compete globally in attracting larger international events, is only good news.

Of course this isn’t going to happen overnight, but it is a vote of confidence in post-Brexit London. Its symbolism is important – and having a hub like ExCel up and running, and growing, will be vital for the surrounding economy, especially the local hotels, bars and restaurants that have suffered from the fall-out. Prior to the pandemic ExCel was attracting four million visitors a year, including an estimated 25% of London’s total inbound business visitors, and generating an economic impact of around £4.5bn for the London and UK economies, according to its owners.

The other upside that won’t be lost on the hospitality sector is the faith that ExCel’s owners obviously have in the eventual return to ‘live’ face-to-face events.

But London, and Docklands, will need more than just more exhibition space to drive a full-scale recovery. It needs international business travellers and tourists, and most importantly office workers to start commuting again. That’s why the efforts of landlords like Soho Estates to keep the film industry in Soho, for example, is another small but important effort. Selling the delights of the West End’s pubs and restaurants is, not surprisingly, part of the sales pitch.

Working from home is not going away any time soon, however, as the glossy ads for ready-made home offices in upmarket colour supplements testify. London is also becoming a less attractive place to live for those that can afford to get out. London leavers bought 73,950 homes worth a collective £27.6bn outside the capital in 2020, the largest amount spent since 2007, according to research by the estate agent Hamptons.

Back in Docklands, before the November lockdown Canary Wharf had seen up to a fifth of its 120,000 who usually work there travelling in again. That’s now largely ground to a halt.

How many will eventually return is hard to say, but no one is expecting full office blocks again. Shobi Khan, chief executive of Canary Wharf Group, which owns much of the broader estate, said his aspirations were to loosen its dependence on big finance firms to make the area a “24/7 city where people live, work and play”. He is targeting technology companies and is looking to create a cluster of life sciences businesses locally, but admitted to the Financial Times that it’s early days.

The successful re-emergence of hospitality will be dependent on the ability of the wider UK economy to reboot, rebuild and reimagine too, especially in our cities. There are optimistic signs, but it looks like it is going to be a long haul.

First appeared in MCA