I’m sure many of us have watched in disbelief at the COVID-19 situation unfolding in Melbourne, and are very grateful to be living and working here in the west. Few people would disagree that not only is Perth one of the safest places in the world to be right now, but also to do business.
So it’s perhaps somewhat of a surprise that city workers aren’t back at their desks in city offices en-masse. In the new normal of the COVID world, the WA workforce has largely adapted to working from home, and it seems they’re not in a hurry to return to the CBD.
Some examples include a major accounting firm, which has only 6% of its 600 person workforce coming in, and a large mining company which has red teams and blue teams alternating weeks, but only a quarter of its 4,000 staff opting to show up in person. Overall, Perth has about 135,000 workers and it’s estimated that only 40% have returned post-COVID. Traffic data also shows workers are exiting the CBD early, around 3pm, making the city a ghost town come nightfall.
The impact all of this is having on the small businesses in the city that rely on foot traffic is bordering on catastrophic.
The beating heart of Perth‘s CBD is the hundreds of small businesses which create the smells, noises and city buzz – the cafes, restaurants, retail stores, the key-cutters, gem stores, hairdressers, and shoe shiners. Typically owner-operated, their cashflow comes from visitors and local workers. But despite Perth being so safe, the COVID cloud is still bearing down. Implementing social distancing protocols, investing in hand sanitiser and staff training hasn’t brought workers back to the city. Our major corporates are clearly not convinced, and our small operators are being pushed to the brink.
It’s worth noting that many of the HR practices and risk decisions for the big firms are being set by head offices either overseas or on the east coast. They fail to recognise that the situation in WA is vastly different, and I think there’s an opportunity for local area managers to lead the way and demonstrate how to return large volumes of workers back to a CBD office in a COVID-safe manner. The learnings from Perth can be distributed to offices in other Australian cities when they’re in an equally safe position. Let’s be leaders not followers.
But anyone who lives or works in Perth knows that the city’s problems didn’t start with COVID. For the past decade Perth’s economy has been in decline. Our Gross Regional Product in 2009 valued the city economy at $50 billion, and last year GRP was $45 billion. We’ve had the highest commercial vacancy rates of any other Australian state city for half a decade now.
As a candidate for Lord Mayor, the main question for me is: how do we make the city a place where people want to be? In my view, the council should be supporting businesses by ensuring the city is a place where workers want to come, not just to work, but to stay. A place where they can benefit from the creativity, excitement and energy that comes from working in a vibrant capital city. A place where they have diverse options for where they spend their lunch break, and where they want to remain after work to unwind by having a drink or a meal.
One of the biggest priorities in making the city more attractive is addressing the homelessness problem. The council should be investigating which city buildings can be used to create safe places to sleep, funding a trial of a shuttle bus service to transport homeless people to service providers, and re-directing funding to non-profit homeless support agencies to upgrade current accommodation. There should also be more cleaning of priority areas to make our city streets more pleasant to walk down.
Perth city council should also be doing everything it can to revitalise the CBD and Northbridge by cutting the red tape that strangles local businesses to encourage laneway activation, micro-breweries, redevelopments and more local community events to breathe life into our streets. The council needs to make use of its quirky heritage spaces to provide fun places for city workers to have lunch. It needs to develop a coherent, year-round program of events that gives people something to hang around for after work. I think the council should consider paying performers to entertain people, so they’ll want to invite their families into the city for an evening out, and I think we should offer free parking after 6pm so they can stay for a while.
Basically, the City needs to convince workers that the CBD and Northbridge are safe, fun, exciting, vibrant places to be, full of things they’re not going to get by working from home. And in doing so, they might save dozens of small businesses from going to the wall.