It’s no surprise that many see HSBC’s decision to leave Canary Wharf as some kind of harbinger of doom for E14’s occasionally maligned forest of skyscrapers.
But HSBC – with CEO Noel Quinn a strong advocate of ‘modern’ workforces and the firm increasingly focused on Asia – may tell us a bit more about the bank than the Docklands.
The truth is, despite the obvious difficulties of a new working world and a pandemic, Canary Wharf is an increasingly attractive place to work, and live.
Wandering around the once less-than-vibrant district is something of a revelation. The decision to lean into retail and hospitality is paying off, with office workers and visitors alike stopping for a lunchtime drink, watching tennis on the big screen. Street food pop-ups are thriving. Green space, at a premium in the Square Mile at least, is thriving; new pedestrian walkways and even wild swimming areas are opening up the waterfront; and there’s even the opportunity to beat your boss at mini golf.
The credit for all of this must go to Shobi Khan, CEO of the Canary Wharf Group, and the firm’s investors, Brookfield and the Qataris. With a long-term vision for ‘Canary Wharf 3.0’, they have given Khan the space to pursue real progress in residential and life sciences, as well as deliver on the promise of more retail. It has one of the highest occupancy rates of any shopping hub in the country; it has no problem shifting residential units, or renting those they own directly.
But, but, but, some will say, Ratings agencies aren’t convinced by CWG’s debt, and flagship financial arrivals are fewer than they used to be. What the doom-mongers ignore is that the Wharf is changing, and growing.
Like any urban development, Canary Wharf has taken a few years to develop a personality – but it is, undoubtedly, getting there.
But if commercial realities are in part driving this transformation, so is the changing world of work. For all the stress of what goes on inside the offices, the Wharf now feels like a place that takes ‘wellbeing’ seriously.
In a world in which more and more employees want to work for companies that think about such things, Canary Wharf is onto something – with or without HSBC.