Whether or not there is a second wave this winter, it seems likely that a vaccine is on the horizon, and that by next year we will be able to live more normally. The question is, what will that normal look like? There have been many articles on the subject, so I am just going to add my own ideas to the mix here.
It is clear that the government’s main focus is on getting back to something that looks like the economic and social situation we had before the pandemic struck - although because of their own actions on Brexit this scenario looks increasingly unlikely. The Back to the Office campagin led by No.10 – and usefully subverted by Matt Hancock, who rose in my estimation (from rock bottom, admittedly), as a result – envisages office life, and therefore the daily commute, as the bedrock of the economy of city centres. On the other hand a very large number of businesses (reportedly more than half even of medium-size and large businesses) are resistant to the idea, partly for financial reasons because in many ways it is cheaper to keep workers at home rather than providing Covid-secure office space for them, and in some cases their efficiency improves if they are left on their own to get on with the job rather than being distracted by others, and partly because the workers themselves in many cases prefer to work from home if given technical support to do so. Many of us have found Zoom a perfectly good way to conduct certain types of meeting and some students are quite relaxed about being given online learning as part of their university experience. There is also a potential traffic problem in that many people are still avoiding public transport because it is seen as less safe and more likely to cause virus transmission than personal transport, whether bicycle or car. The rush hour in cities, if everyone returned to ‘normal’ working, might become a nightmare.
It seems to me that the government is missing an opportunity here, through short-sighted obsession with a very limited view of ‘normality’. In 1954 my father, Bryan Anstey, a chartered surveyor with a practice in Cheapside in the City of London, wrote to The Times suggesting that new houses should be built on what we would now call brownfield sites (some of them at that time still effectively bombsites left over from the Blitz). I have a framed copy of the letter on the wall of my study. He suggested the name ‘High Barbican’ for the new venture, and it was this idea that eventually became the Barbican development. His vision was for homes in the very centre of the city, not just as a one-off but as a general principle, harking back to the historical nature of cities where, before easy transport links were built out to the suburbs and hinterland, people lived and worked in the same area, even if not always in the same building. I believe that, with current environmental concerns about reducing the amount of travel we all do regularly, and the experience of many of people that quieter roads and fewer trains (and no aeroplanes) made for a better quality of life during lockdown, whatever the equally evident downsides, this idea should be revisited. Supposing, to revive the city centres and their shops and eating places, some office buildings were converted into flats and turned over to residential use? This would have much the same effect on retail and hospitality outlets as returning people to offices, and would continue over weekends –- during which at present many city centres are as dead as the dodo. These areas would become mixed communities, with all the advantages that has. Cities that have congestion charges, like London, could continue to discourage people from keeping and using cars in the centre, with the result that many people would give up car ownership, as is the case in many continental cities, thus cutting down carbon emissions and other pollutions considerably. Transport links used currently for commuting could be repurposed for other necessary travel and for leisure, probably at a lower level – but does anyone actually enjoy the rush hour on the tube, train or bus?
So much for commuting as against working from home (I have worked freelance at home for more than 30 years so it is not surprising that I am seeing the advantages of it more than the disadvantages, though I accept that for some the social life of offices is important – there is a comparison to be made here between those who thrive on social interaction and those who do better on their own or with a limited amount of interaction, but that is a subject for another blog). I think we should also be looking at security of income, which in ‘normal’ economic times is fairly stable for most people, but as we have seen over the last six months, in a crisis such as the pandemic and consequent lockdown has had to be propped up at enormous cost by the government. This has created momentum for an alternative economic model, the Basic Income, which does not interfere with the existing capitalist mechanisms for creating wealth and fostering entrepreneurship and hard work, but removes the need for a multitude of ‘benefits’ which create dependency on social income and a plethora of civil servants and others to administer the system and make judgements (often flawed) as to who is entitled to such provision. If a Basic Income were provided for every individual, irrespective of need, which everyone would be at liberty to top up with earnings (taxable) as opportunity offered, there would be no need for furlough or universal credit and poverty could be done away with more or less at a stroke. Those who have done the sums reckon that very little in the way of basic income tax rises would be required to fund it, because of savings, not least administrative ones, but that would be a calculation for governments to make based on actual projections. Part of the rationale behind universal credit was to make savings, but the system is still far too complicated either to ensure that no one falls through the safety net or to save much administratively. People who don’t need the Basic Income because of other sources of wealth could be encouraged to give it to charity, but it would always be there if someone fell on hard times, lost their job, became disabled, or if a pandemic struck. This would not remove the possibility for extra help for those in particular need because of disability of any kind, but for many it would be enough to get by, and it would provide security and stability, albeit at quite a basic level – but it’s surprising how beneficial it can be to see how little we really need in the way of luxuries if we securely have shelter, food, and other basic necessities.
I hope the government will listen to the voices that are resisting a return to the mixture as before. This is a once-in-history opportunity to make radical changes with the support of the majority of citizens, and without massive dislocation, simply because those changes have already been made as a result of lockdown and could be kept rather than reverting to pre-lockdown scenarios. Some of them were already beginning to happen, so to allow them would simply be going with the flow. Please, Boris & Co., don’t be blinkered. Give it a go.