Covid-19: Recovery of Central London Businesses

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:13 am on 22nd June 2021.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 11:13 am, 22nd June 2021

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My father came over not on Windrush, but from the other direction—from Burma—in the 1950s, at around the same time. He completed his apprenticeship here in the UK, having started it in Rangoon, as it was, after the war. At the time, he had that shared experience of helping Britain to recover through his engineering work. The interesting point that she raises about how we support that particular section of the workforce is crucial—I talked about the spirit of London—in making sure that we get the recovery right for everybody.

I have talked about the Mayor of London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster is absolutely right that we have to work constructively together. Now we have the London elections out of the way, although we will always do party politics and the ding-dong, we have to make sure that we collaborate closely together.

My fear has always been that he wanted to have the title of Mayor, but did not work out which city he wanted to be Mayor of. It is important that he is the Mayor for all London; otherwise, we will have a Gotham City scenario. Frankly, I do not think he would mind it if he was the mayor of Gotham City. What do I mean by that? In Gotham City in the Batman movies—“Joker” and so on—there is the holistic city that has the ultra-rich, who can be insulated from all these sorts of things, because they have the money to be able to support it. There are then the lowest-paid in society—the people who service all the workforces and workplaces, and who have to travel into the middle of town. There are then those in the middle, who live in areas like mine on the suburbs and outskirts, who can opt out. They can sit in their back gardens with their ready meal and a bottle of wine, and shop locally in their outer London high streets, which are starting to bounce back quite well.

That leaves a massive gap in the city centre—in the central activity zone, as it has slightly unromantically been titled over the last few years. Essentially, that is the west end, the City of London, Canary Wharf and those areas that people around the world know so well. People look to London, invest in London and want to travel to London because they know those areas. Those are the areas we see in the films and tourism brochures.

We then get to the question: how do we attract international visitors to go into those areas and beyond, across the UK? That is why the tourism recovery strategy is so important in making sure that we start that slow burn, because we know that it will take time to get international visitors back to the UK. However, we must do it.

We also have to get domestic tourists to London. That is why I absolutely agree with the Mayor that his campaign, Let’s Do London, is a far better campaign than we have had in previous re-openings after lockdown. It is a real call to action. If one looks around London, whether at the London Eye, the Tower of London—which I had the privilege of going to the other day—the Museum of London, the British Museum or the Royal Opera House, there are no queues. People who live in the south-east and who walk past those areas on their way to work or when they are in the workplace should go to them, because they will not have another chance to do so with no international tourists and without having to queue up for half an hour. They can see some of the best places, the best cultural buildings and the best institutions in the world right on their doorstep. That is what Let’s Do London is all about—getting people to rediscover the spirit of London.

There are two more types of people we want to encourage back, as we start to reopen. One is students. There are 40 universities in London—a massive chunk of organisations that attract young people who will want to spend more time in London after their studies. They will get jobs and fill some of the roles in the City and elsewhere that my hon. Friend spoke about. We also want to get people back into their workplaces.

The Prime Minister rightly wrangled with the decision over when to reach stage 4 of the road map. He did not make that decision easily because there were so many factors to consider, but it was the right one to take when making the argument that we want to ensure that we are moving in only one direction. The big lesson of last year is not to chase the virus and not to have the stop-start, because that costs businesses even more. A cautious reopening, put back a few weeks, is the right thing to do.

However, one of the unintended consequences of moving the reopening to July is that that leads quickly to August, which tends to be a quiet month for London. We want to ensure that we are working with big employers now, and looking at what more we can do to be flexible and encourage people back to their workplaces.

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomed the flexible season ticket. We are demonstrating—not just doing it—that Transport for London has never cleaned the tube network as many times before. The problem is that that is being done at 2 o’clock in the morning, so we need to show people what is being done. Public transport is safe. I have been taking it most days for the past year and I have never worried about it. I encourage people to try it and see for themselves. They should spread their journeys out beyond rush hour to maintain space, because hands, face, space and fresh air are still important. We are not going to kill the virus in one day when we reopen and get to step 4. This is not like a thriller where the baddie is killed and the credits roll. We are going to be living with this for some time, but that is no reason to stay closed.

Finally, my hon. Friend talked about Sunday trading. I have been speaking to the Heart of London Business Alliance and the New West End Company about that. It is a tough one. We have looked at it time and again in Parliament, and it has always been incredibly controversial. Although she talks about international centres for it, it still needs primary legislation. We will keep it under review and work with colleagues to see what the objections are and get the balance right.

We will continue to look at what we can do with business rates. My hon. Friend talked about VAT. Something like £27 billion of support has gone into the VAT reduction. The Chancellor needs to look at measures in the round and holistically, just as she talked about looking at London holistically.

London is an ecosystem. People do not stay in a hotel in London just to sleep in another bed; they do it because of the theatres, the restaurants and all the other things London has to offer. That is what we have to protect. We will continue to try to do that, working together with the Mayor, the boroughs, this place, and our businesses and communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.