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Could Aberdeen be ‘pilot’ location for safe return to office working?

Union Street, Aberdeen, during the local lockdown in August.
Union Street, Aberdeen, during the local lockdown in August.

Business leaders in the north-east have called on the Scottish Government to consider running a safe return to office working pilot in Aberdeen in a bid to prevent the “death knell” sounding for firms across the city.

The Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce has written an open letter to MPs and MSPs across the region that suggests the move based on the “high incidence of private transport usage in the region”, claiming the pandemic response has hit the north-east “particularly badly”.

However, Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn says the notion his constituents should be “used as a test case” is not a move he could support, describing the move as “verging on tone deaf” during the “worst period of the pandemic”.

The organisation, which represents more than 1,100 businesses, says the August local lockdown, which saw the city put under tough restrictions for three weeks, “put this area on the back foot as other places experienced some initial signs of recovery”.

The latest tightening of restrictions could be the “straw that breaks the back of many that have been clinging on, hoping for better things in 2021”.

Figures from regional transport partnership Nestrans show that those travelling to work by car stands at 63% in Aberdeen, compared to Edinburgh at 35%, Glasgow at 46% and Dundee on 54%.

The Scottish national average is 63%, with rates in Aberdeenshire of 69%.

‘An uphill battle to survive’

The letter, by chief executive Russell Borthwick, states the Scottish Government should consider Aberdeen as a location for the office working pilot and suggests the creation of a city centre taskforce, with ministerial leadership, to deliver a focused set of actions to kickstart recovery.

He adds:  “At times, footfall in Aberdeen City has been down 80% on the previous year.

“The lifeblood of these places – retail, leisure and hospitality businesses – face an uphill battle to survive.

Russell Borthwick, chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber Of Commerce.

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

“Forecasts in 2018 warned that we would lose a further 30% of bricks and mortar retail in the next 10 years.

“Firms in the north-east have real concerns that this timeline could be accelerated fivefold.”

Sustainable recovery

Shane Taylor, research and policy manager at Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, says a “balanced” approach must be taken to ensure any measures are done “safely”.

But he claims the only way there will be “sustainable recovery” for the majority of the businesses in the city is by “beginning to see some of that footfall return”.

Mr Taylor adds that research they have carried out shows “lots of businesses” in the region want to return to offices “in some form”, with firms keen to find out what the “exit strategy” out of the pandemic is.

He says: “The only way we can practically do that (increase footfall) is by making office return attractive.”

‘Verging on tone deaf’

Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn says everyone is “rightly concerned” about what the future holds for the city centre, with the pandemic having accelerated the “already real challenges” facing retailers.

Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn.

He adds: “That’s exactly why we need the Chancellor to level the financial playing field between online retailers and our high streets – and to immediately provide the funding necessary for a long-term extension of business rates relief.

“The notion that my constituents should be used as a test case for a return to office working is not something that I will support and for it to again be suggested in the middle of what is the worst period of this pandemic is verging on tone deaf.

“We all want to return to normal and with the vaccine being rolled-out there is some light at the end of the tunnel but, for now, let’s keep our focus on staying at home to protect our NHS and save the lives of people in Aberdeen.”

Aberdeen taskforce

Scottish Conservative north-east MSP Liam Kerr says the vaccine and restrictions “must be given a chance to work” but supports the creation of an Aberdeen taskforce, which “simply cannot wait”.

North-east MSP Liam Kerr.

He adds: “Some businesses in Aberdeen, including offices, still have to pay crippling business rates during the pandemic, which have had terminal impacts on our high streets and jobs.

“Throughout the outbreak, the SNP Government has used Aberdeen as a cash cow for the central belt, showing a complete disregard to businesses struggling to stay afloat in the city.

“The Scottish Conservatives set out an Aberdeen economic recovery plan which hasn’t been implemented by the SNP.”

‘Death knell’ for city firms

Mr Borthwick warns that the current approach to office return, hospitality closures and the lack of any type of live events could sound the “death knell” for businesses.

Unemployment in the area more than doubled between March and September and Aberdeen city alone accounts for 30% of all Scottish notifications, more than 7,600 jobs.

Meanwhile, around 1,000 hotel bedrooms have been lost to closure due to the city’s dependence on business tourism, the letter claims.

Adrian Watson, chief executive of Aberdeen Inspired, the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), says it has “long advocated” for a city centre taskforce.

Adrian Watson, chief executive of Aberdeen Inspired, with Jenny Laing co-leader of Aberdeen City Council, on the city’s Belmont Street.

He adds:  “This predates Covid-19 but the pandemic has accelerated the scale of challenge being faced by city centres, and Aberdeen is in no way immune in that regard.

“Our high street is not only crucial to the city but also the region and indeed the country.

“Aberdeen has had to endure a painful number of years, with pressure on the oil and gas industry and now with the pandemic. Against that difficult backdrop and as one of the largest cities in Scotland, Aberdeen, and its businesses, need national support.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman says: “Ministers have already discussed the need for a national response to issues facing city centres with the Cities Alliance and the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy has agreed that Scottish Government work in partnerships with cities.

“Scottish Government officials led a meeting representatives of Scotland’s cities on  January 7 as part of our ongoing work to consider how our city centres can be assisted to recover.

“Since March 2020 we have provided £22 million in recovery and resilience funding specifically for town centres, smaller settlements and Business Improvement Districts, building on the £50 million provided through the capital Town Centre Fund which is enabling local authorities to take forward innovative projects which will make transformative improvements to town centres across Scotland.”