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Chancellor, Send The Country Back To Work, Bruntwood Boss Says

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak

The government risks damaging urban life if it doesn’t encourage a mass return to the office, one property company executive says.

Bruntwood chief executive Chris Oglesby blasted the government for endangering the city's “ecosystem” by adopting a “work from home unless you have to” approach to rolling back the lockdown.

Oglesby said this contrasted with the “return to work unless you can't” approach adopted in mainland Europe and Asia. 

Today, official UK government advice remains to work from home unless that is impossible.

Oglesby was speaking in an exclusive Bisnow webinar, in conversation with Bisnow UK Editor Mike Phillips.

“I’m optimistic about the office sector, that’s not what worries me. It's more the ecosystem that made our cities attractive to talent that worries me," Oglesby said. "The urgency is in the retail, leisure, cultural, hotel, events, the whole visitor economy, all of which is mutually dependent. It doesn’t matter how much [chancellor of the exchequer] Rishi Sunak says go out to shops and restaurants, that isn’t going to be enough to keep shops and restaurants profitable if there aren’t people going to work in our cities.

“The government is letting us down by saying work from home unless you can’t. In Asia and Europe, the message is return to work unless you can’t. We’re in danger of the ecosystem in our cities, which drives our economy, rotting and ending. And that is bad for us as people, too.”

A socially distanced Bruntwood workspace: more pot plants than people.

Oglesby, now back at his desk in Manchester city centre, is one of relatively few office workers who have returned to central Manchester.

“It is so good to get back into the habit of going into the office, it's hugely energising, it feels great to see people. And much as I love the sound of birdsong at home, listening to the construction work opposite our office is hugely positive," Oglesby said.

“Until we get the footfall back into city centres, we are going to see a bloodbath of restaurants, retail, amenities and culture, all the things that made Amazon and want to put big offices in Manchester. They would never have considered the city in the 1990s [when Manchester lacked amenities]. We need to get people back into the city.

“We had a mutual responsibility to look after each other in lockdown, and now there is a mutual responsibility to look after each other as we come out of lockdown, and that means not sitting in our nice houses just being selfish. We need to get back into work and get the city going again.”

Bruntwood chief executive Chris Oglesby

Oglesby said that Bruntwood had been in conversations with all of its 4,000 property customers in the office, retail and hospitality sectors, and blasted some retail landlords and tenants for their “antiquated” approach.

“What shocks me more than anything [I’ve seen] is the dysfunctional relationship of retail and landlord tenants," he said. "It’s like the office market in the early 1990s, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of partnership. We need a different approach from landlords and tenants, with retailers looking more like partners with a stake in the location.”

Oglesby said he was learning from chief executives in other sectors, and regularly recruited from outside the property industry.

“Our industry is still very antiquated and old-fashioned in so many ways," he said. "There is nothing like getting someone from outside to slap you across the face and point that out. The basic thing to remember is that property is an operating business for decades, but the property industry has been fighting against that.”