I was reminded by a piece in The Guardian the other week that September has historically been a sometimes savage month for high finance. For example, the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720; the departure of sterling from the gold standard in 1931; John Major and Black Wednesday in 1992; the global banking crisis in 2008; the Liz Truss premiership last year. They were all tales of troubling times in Septembers. The fact that one branch of Pret a Manger at Canary Wharf was pretty deserted at lunchtime last Monday (and, yes, it was a Monday, but still…) hardly falls into that sort of category but it is indicative of a downturn in what was London’s secondary but nevertheless still major financial sector.
The UK financial services industry (not just in London) provides approximately £75.5 billion of taxes each year for the government. That’s more than 10% of the Treasury’s overall income. This stuff matters. Canary Wharf has been a big part of that for over 30 years, the iconic main tower at One Canada Square being completed in 1990. But now the Canary Wharf Group (CWG) is having to contemplate a change in strategy given unwanted developments such as banking giant HSBC exiting Docklands when the lease on its office expires in 2027.
Canary Wharf station on the Docklands Light Railway is shown on the home page in monochrome, which might become unfortunately appropriate if such desertions become more commonplace. As things stand, Docklands has particularly come to epitomise the post-pandemic working practice known as ‘twats’. (People only being in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.) One consultant told the Financial Times: “Bankers are working from home much more these days. Canary Wharf is one of those places that is just being pulverised.”
As things are now, some shops and food outlets do not open at weekends, so the optimism inherent in the poster shown above does at present seem a trifle misplaced. But there are more than 300 retailers, eight supermarkets (including the country’s largest Waitrose) and more than 70 bars and restaurants, including such brands as Caravan, Dishoom and Hawksmoor. It also has a station on the new Elizabeth line. But as another consultant told the FT: “Canary Wharf is first and foremost a place for work and production. Commercial space dedicated to consumption is only there to serve the needs of people who work there.”
Put another way, if the HBBC departure signifies a trend, the demand for its amenities will fall further. CWG is of course aware of this, and accordingly it has plans to create life-science facilities to rival those in Cambridge and Oxford – indeed, it has started, with Genomics England being located there. Having originally come into existence as a dock, the next reincarnation of Canary Wharf may be as a biotech hub.