By Russell Borthwick

Decisions being taken now could see our city centres – places that should be the beating heart of our communities – become concrete deserts in the very near future.

UK high streets and town centres were already being hit hard by the perfect storm of out-of-town retailing, the rise in online shopping and changes in consumer behaviour.

The High Streets & Town Centres in 2030 report by Sir John Timpson in 2018 concluded: "Unless urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether."

Some forecasts at the time warned that we would lose a further 30 per cent of bricks-and-mortar retail in the next 10 years. And this was all before Covid-19 and the response by our governments to it. Some experts are now suggesting that timeline could be accelerated five-fold.

However, strategies to reinvent our cities were based not just around retail but focused on creating exciting, cool, attractive multifunctional places that people choose to live, spend leisure time and work.

The current approach to “non-essential” office return, restrictions on hospitality and the continued ban on live events could spell the death-knell for the business ecosystems in place to support these office workers and our wider communities.

Why are we so far behind our European peers? Personnel Today data tell us that in France, 83% of office workers have returned. In Italy, it’s 76%, in Spain 73% and in Germany 70%, with the UK bringing up the rear at 34%.

We cannot continually keep kicking the can down the road. “We’ll return to the office in January” has become a commonly heard phrase. Why January? What will have changed by then? And grand and unjustified statements like "we might never return to the office" run the risk of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies if repeated often enough.

If employers are content to end office leases and opt for a business model of the future where their "teams" sit at dining room tables on laptops, this will have the domino effect of rendering our current non-domestic rates system largely null and void.

To avoid this, a combination of corporate and personal responsibility and greater trust from government is required. Businesses across the country have already invested heavily in following and often exceeding the rules put in place to protect employees and customers. People will choose to go to places for work and leisure that have made reasonable adjustments to safeguard their health. And when there, the behaviour of those people must reflect the fact that, for now, things are different. This is the only sustainable and affordable way to protect tens of thousands of companies and millions of jobs.

Then there’s the myth that homeworking somehow increases productivity. Simply not true in many cases. Of course it’s important that we take stock and consider what we have learned that might improve our working lives but it is equally important to avoid knee-jerk reactions that imply everything we knew and (mostly) loved before March should be banished to the history books.

We are human beings, programmed for social interaction. While Zoom and Teams meetings are functional and enable information exchange, this is entirely two-dimensional. The third dimension of spontaneity, creativity, relationship-building, white-of-the-eyes trust, mentoring, team development and water cooler chat must not be disregarded and lost.

With low infection rates and high levels of private transport usage, Aberdeen is the ideal place for a test programme to safely get workers back to offices and we urge the government to work with us on this.

Russell Borthwick is chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce