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London’s key district plots reboot amid Covid, Brexit

By Reuters | December 10th 2020

For fintech entrepreneur Lewis Liu, no other city on earth could compare to London.

Chinese-born and New York-bred, the CEO and co-founder of Eigen Technologies had always dreamed of setting up a business in the Square Mile, the historic heart of European finance and home to a global talent pool vital to companies like his.

But less than a year after opening his office within yards of the Bank of England, Liu’s happy-ever-after is under threat.

The City, as London’s financial district is known, has survived the Great Fire, the Black Death and other upheavals down the centuries. This time though, it faces a double hit to its future.

Covid-19 is draining life and prosperity from almost every major global city, but London also faces a second, unique reckoning after Britain parts ways with the European Union on January 1.

“I came to London because it was truly global and Brexit certainly took a bite out of that rosy, futuristic vision I had,” said Liu, whose firm is backed by Goldman Sachs and Singaporean wealth fund Temasek.

“In the medium term, I have confidence in the City, in the long term I don’t know,” he said, citing fears of a brain drain that could scupper his young company’s growth.

Before the pandemic struck, London was war-gaming how it could remain one of the world’s leading financial centres, with Paris and Milan already offering sweeteners to poach talent.

While the jobs “Brexodus” has been lighter than predicted, that challenge is now an existential battle as a new remote-working culture spawned by Covid-19 leaves London’s skyscrapers largely empty and a thriving office scene in tatters.

“We are more worried about the place, the damage caused by lack of footfall,” said Catherine McGuinness, leader of the City of London Corporation, which has presided over the financial district since 1191.

Public transport use in the City was still only 17 per cent of pre-Covid levels on December 4, just after the end of a second lockdown, with office visits down by 54 per cent, according to Google Mobility Report.

Moreover, almost half of UK workers intend to split their working weeks between the office and home over the next six months, a September survey by the British Council for Offices found.

British and EU negotiators have been making last-ditch efforts to hammer out a post-Brexit trade deal. But even if a deal is struck, the City will not keep the same access to the EU, the bloc’s financial services chief has warned.

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