Covid-19 changed many things. It should change housing policy too
Ministers must reconsider the dash to build pokey dwellings when so many more people may work from home in future
There is a growing divide between those who want to rethink their lives after Covid and those who want to return to some kind of pre-virus normality. Thinktanks and academics have begun to ask how many people will change their work and social life, and what that will mean for employers, high streets, culture and even people’s ability to meet a partner, fall in love and have children. At the moment, they can only speculate. A poll might tell us how a random sample wants to work – some might view a return to the office or factory as the best outcome, while others say they prefer to work more from home more often. What is clear, though, is that some will change their way of working, travelling, shopping and visiting the cinema, and quite a few will make radical changes. This is why ministers should pause before they start throwing cash at whatever problem they perceived needed solving in the months before the Covid-19 crisis.
Some government schemes will need to go through the planning mincer all over again. Ploughing on with the same ill-thought-out programmes for “levelling up” or training (“rethink, reskill, reboot”) would be a costly misadventure. Housing should be top of the list of subjects to be re-examined. Inside the Treasury, there is a conviction that only volume matters. It rules all other considerations and leads the housing, communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, to side with developers at every turn. He has torn up the plans of countless local authorities on the grounds that they don’t include enough housing. Jenrick cares little about the size of the homes and whether the abundance of pokey one- and two-bedroom flats with open-plan kitchen/dining/living areas is fit for a 21st century in which at least one person may be working from home.
It only takes one graph revealing a decline in the annual rise in commuting to a city – any city – from the surrounding area for all the profits from a major housing development to evaporate. There is a concern that ministers will give permission for infrastructure that few will use, or that takes us in the direction of more car journeys There are still projects across the south-east being promoted by Jenrick that need extra public transport links to be viable. How will these work when many people say they will refuse to travel on public transport until the vaccine has done its work, and maybe not even then? Hopefully, a Labour government would begin to see towns as places that people should want to live and work in, and would aim to reduce the number who commute, going with the grain of modern urban ideas. The party should challenge the outmoded view that large cities are the only routes to growth and say that a reassessment of what an economy needs to be successful – GDP growth is not necessarily the measure – is a priority.
Reports have highlighted the long-term trends of decline in our towns, most recently one by the Centre for Towns thinktank. Its study provided Labour with the information it needs to overcome concerns that those who live in northern towns, many of whom voted for Brexit, are closed to the idea that their environment should be improved. Analysis of responses to the British Election Study between February 2014 and December 2019 suggests that over the past five years there has been a near 20% rise in the proportion of people saying measures to protect the environment have not gone far enough, pushing the total who care about the issue to 60% overall. And the gap in attitudes between towns and cities has nearly halved over this period, indicating, the thinktank says, “that the environment is a growing concern everywhere, and especially in towns and more rural areas”.
According to a poll of businesses by the CBI, many employers are thinking along similar lines. Almost six out of 10 respondents thought people would “shop close to where they live”, and many predicted the widespread adoption of hybrid working patterns, with offices “recalibrated for collaborating and connecting with colleagues”.That should make every government department stop and think about all their programmes – their one-off projects and their plans to spend big to tackle the growing divides between north and south, towns and cities, old and young. It is not just about public money being spent on outmoded projects. There is also the concern that ministers such as Jenrick will give permission for infrastructure that few will use, or that takes us in the direction of more car journeys, not fewer. More particularly, the worry is that private developers will be allowed to build dehumanising homes that are in the wrong place and do nothing to tackle climate change.