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Sunday, 26 July 2020

Could Covid save the Green Belt?

At engineering school we learned one of the costs of the black hole that is London, whose gravitational pull was once so great that everything in the island was drawn inexorably into its maw. In this case it was sand and aggregate - an effect known as the Aggregate Drag.

Essentially all sand and gravel quarried in the south-east is delivered in the direction of London; gravel from Chelmsford will go to London, gravel from Ipswich will go to Chelmsford and gravel from Diss will go to Ipswich. Likewise roadstone from the Midlands and the north is always (in aggregate, ahem, terms) delivered southwards. So pernicious are the economic and transport infrastructure effects of this drag that interventions have frequently been made with the intention of by-passing the movements. London plans have preserved sand and gravel wharves right in the heart of the city, from Deptford to Richmond, to take millions of tons of traffic from the roads radiating to Kent and Anglia. The aim is to take gravel from Diss and such parts direct to London and leave Ipswich and Chelmsford supplying themselves. Railheads have been established in Scots 'superquarries' that hollow-out entire mountains to send millions of tonnes of Scots roadstone directly into coating plants in the heart of London rather than into Northumberland. And so on.

London's insatiable demand for building and expansion led the well-intentioned but over-controlling planners of post-war London, with a masterplan known universally as the Abercrombie Plan, to create a green belt. In the same way as they sought to control Aggregate Drag they sought to control People Drag; establishing a series of new towns on the other side of the green belt. This is an original plan -

In recent years both councils and developers have been poised with back-hoe excavators at the ready (oh come on - you don't expect us to write 'bulldozers' on this blog ..) at the edge of the existing green belt - always somewhat smaller than the 1944 plan - doing the housing-queue equivalent of shroud-waving. At times it has been doubtful if the green belt can survive. However, Covid could change all that.

In a matter of months we have undergone a decade's worth (in more normal times) of change. The culture wars have left the workplace a minefield in which first smoking then alcohol and finally human contact has been banned as too hazardous. Lawyers and HR departments were in the ascendant, 'micro aggressions' lurked round every corner, and one couldn't even move someone's yoghurt pot in the office fridge without risking a misconduct hearing. You can get away with this nonsense in the BBC and the public sector, where maintaining the right diversity quota is always more important than actual output, productivity and efficiency, but the new mores have hit the private sector hard.

Covid has actually come as a welcome shock-adjustment for many firms. Overnight whole legions of HR executives monitoring breaches of fridge-etiquette are redundant, as are lawyers taking on yoghurt-pot cases for no win no fee. Workers can crack a beer in their home offices without breaching company policy, and hug their spouses or significant others without risk of disciplinary action. Of course we have still to work out some important stuff like how employer's liability in law will work if a home-worker trips on a printer cable, whether home offices are lawful in planning terms, who will pay for the heat, light, power and water consumed to the firm's benefit by household-based workers and so on. But such solutions will come.

More significantly, housing demand in and around London will start to fall. If you can work remotely from Harlow, why not Bishop Auckland? Or Austria? And if housing demand falls, then so will pressure to develop the green belt. Covid could turn out to be a very green disease. 


Obligato said...

Except... Many folk are finding that the bijou little box they inhabit has no space for adequate long term homeworking. My daughter and her husband, mid 30s , with a toddler, small footprint 2 bed flat,no adequate soundproofing. Driving them crazy with them both working from home. I foresee a boom time in house extensions for those who have that option. But for many it's brought home just how small our homes are.

DeeDee99 said...

Another possible bonus is that small towns and villages across the country, which were depopulated every day as the commuters left at 7am and returned at 7pm, may actually become communities again.

Who knows, they might even get back some basic facilities such as a local pub, cafe and village shop/s if the Government stops continually trying to destroy them with idiotic policies.

@ Obligato ... builder coming to my b-t-l on Monday to look at reconfiguring upstairs to provide a small 3rd room which could function as an office.

DiscoveredJoys said...

It would be possible for an entreprenurial firm to provide warehouses of rentable desk space in serviced office accommodation. Instead of driving to the station and commuting office workers could just drive to a big 'telecommute' office near them. Such places already exist but on a small scale and rented on a room or floor basis. Rent on a per desk basis with lockers, printers and shredders and a lot of money and commuting time could be saved.

Meanwhile the EU are feeling braver...

If you were so inclined you could argue that the landmark budget deal actually removes the pressure of 'duty of care' towards our continental neighbours. It's not what they say, it's how you choose to respond to it. A lesson the EU is habitually unable to grasp.

Dave_G said...

I hark back to the days when housing came with gardens - gardens big enough to swing a cat in, not just bury one. To that extent nearly everyone had a shed (all men should) that could easily double up as an extravworkplace/office in these times yet the constant pressure on housing (mainly via greed) has shrunk property sizes and the land they stand on to the point where you don't even need to own a mower.

If they made housing (the land they stand on) a legally required minimum then everyone could work from home no problem.

I'm lucky enough to not only work from home but run a business from here and have our own independent workshops and offices and still take two hours to tidy the remaining garden. But then again I don't live in a city. I feel sorry for those that do (or have to).

Raedwald said...

There's still a lot of disgustingly cheap Austrian property about - 4 bed villa here, 150m2, on a 350m2 plot, needs some updating but blistering fast and cheap broadband as standard ...£60k.

Anonymous said...

Raedwald said @ 10:55

'There's still a lot of disgustingly cheap Austrian property..'

Austria: 32,390 sq miles, pop 8.8 million

England: 50,300 sq miles, pop 57 million

note: England is smaller than Louisiana (19th smallest US state) which has a population of 4.6 million.

Current levels of immigration to England will 'require a home to be built every six minutes, night and day' (ONS Projections).

Mass immigration is clearly worsening the housing crisis. It has ‘increased the overall demand for housing’ (says the ONS) and ‘increases house prices’ (according to the Journal of Housing Economics - July 2019)


DJK said...

I know of someone working for a company in Derby, that since lockdown has been working from home in Singapore (with the company's blessing). Someone else has been WFH in Belgium.

Of course if a British company lets you WFH in Austria, then why not employ an Austrian, WFH in Austria. In fact, the end of presenteeism means that companies can recruit office workers from anywhere in the world.

Dave_G said...

Scotland approx 31,000 sq miles and 5.5m people so no wonder I'm happy with my lot (pun intended)!

As others mention, jobs won't be site specific any more which tbh is an advantage for many. But opportunities still exist even in the UK and we're seeing many visitors asking about properties here now - this despite the SNP effect! In fact we've had two new families move in recently and our village only comprises 12 properties.

Last purchase was 3 bed detached on 1/4 area with Loch views and sold for 185k.

Excavator Man said...

Obligato, you're right. My pal who designs extensions for people has just become overwhelmed with work. It's not just people who discovered that their properties are too small, it's also people intent in the future on working from home. I found that an office in the house was useful when I had small kids, but when they grew up and didn't need babysitting then the shed was better - and that was for my second job. Now I'm retired from the first job it's a boon.

jim said...

There has been a lot in the press about Covid changing everything. Seems an optimistic view to me.

Let us imagine some potion is found and the world is more or less cured by say Christmas 2021. The human drive for profit and shiny new tellies and phones will likely resume - or be made to resume. There seems room for some argument over whether WFH or WFO is good, bad or somewhere in between. TBH I can't see WFH having a long-term future - but it might.

Then we have the old Green Belt problem. Held up by NIMBYism, the Banks' being on the hook for vast mortgage valuations predicated on house prices, the politicians speaking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to housing developments, the small size and low quality of British mass market housing and of course the fact that political party funds come from the big building companies and the land bank investors and the leasehold problem. A fine mess guaranteed to destroy politicians and political parties.

I am less sanguine about Covid changing everything. I think we will face the same nasty choices - and fudge them again in five years time.

BTW, not far from me is a Traveller site, not popular. But my how they work. Big excavators, dump trucks and rollers. Post and rail fencing ready for the new mobiles, top quality. Well funded and well versed in law, they run rings round The Planning. One part of the economy doing very well. That's what happens when you have special rights over the Green Belt.

Nick Drew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Drew said...

The culture wars have left the workplace a minefield in which first smoking then alcohol and finally human contact has been banned as too hazardous.

There's a tremendous parallel here with what happened in the North Sea after the Piper Alpha tragedy. Summary:

- the ghastly incident, and subsequent rigours of the Cullen enquiry (requiring vastly heightened safety standards on offshore oil & gas platforms) made many people immediately conclude the industry was doomed - too expensive to implement

- but ... large-scale introduction of remote control (plus three other technical innovations in parallel) resulted in most platforms becoming "not normally manned", thereby avoiding the costs that would indeed have finished the industry

- result: costs cratered, leading to a massive rejuvenation of the sector, lasting over two decades

These are among the reasons why economic forecasting is such utter bilge, BTW: no ability to predict tech advances

Greg T said...

What is happening is that suburban centres & mini-centres are now flourishing - certainly inside the outer parts of London.
Trips to the centre are now optional, or are "passing through" to go somewhere else local ...
Often IN "a local"