Careless vistas

So many prime ministers have pledged action on social care before recoiling, that I really wanted to celebrate the PM grasping the late summer nettle of reform. But he seems to have  brushed casually past it while racing after shimmering mirage of making the NHS “the envy of the world”. Providing a ‘cap and floor’ for personal contributions to care is a good thing. It will reduce anxiety and help protect inheritances for many moderately well-off families, though using workers’ national insurance contributions to do so seems pretty well the least appropriate way of achieving that.

Or almost. State-provided adult social care (which London Councils estimate is 65 per cent of home care and 54 per cent of residential care) is currently funded by London’s boroughs, drawing on government grants, and the dysfunctional ugly twins of local government finance – council tax and national non-domestic rates.

Paying for social care accounted for more than 50 per cent of London borough service spending in 2018/19 according to Centre for London analysis (excluding public health, education and police services). London’s older population and younger population with care needs are both forecast to grow over the next decades, so the costs will rise. When he was chief executive of Barnet Council, Andrew Travers drew a ‘Graph of Doom’ showing social care (including children’s services) gobbling up the whole borough budget by 2030. The £3 billion or so (out of a total of £36 billion) left for reform of the system over the next three years would only just close the funding gap in London. It’s pretty thin gruel.

Even putting the matter of funding levels and taxes to one side for a moment, it makes no sense for the service to be delivered this way. People value social care, and see it as a critical service, but also look to councils for housing, planning, waste collection, street cleanings, park, libraries and schools.

The current model also creates an unhealthy tension between the NHS and social services, as older people are shunted gracelessly between home care, hospitals and residential care. I have heard anecdotes about councils employing full time lawyers to argue against hospital discharges into their care, and (full disclosure) I am personally in the middle of an unseemly haggle with the NHS and social services about who should be providing my mother’s care.

The row over the miserly allocation of funding to social care improvement, compared to the sums lavished on the NHS, illustrates the point. It is artificial to distinguish between the care provided to an old person at home and the care she receives on a hospital ward, not least because if you get the former right, you are less likely to have to pay for the latter.

I am generally all for devolution, but I think this may be the exception. The PM announced that the “NHS and social care systems need to be brought closer together” and talks of “integrated care systems”, but we have been hearing soft phrases like that for years. I think we need to be bolder, and nationalise funding for adult social care.

This does not necessarily mean nationalising care homes and care agencies, though in some cases that might be desirable or even necessary. It should mean tighter regulation to ensure decent pay and more consistently compassionate care.  In many cases, services would be provided pretty much as they are now (the NHS is far more used to operating through third-party providers than it was in the past), but decisions would be taken in a genuinely integrated way, where budgets allocations were not the issue.

This is not intended as a criticism of borough social services departments – London has some pioneering boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham, who are I think the only local authority who levy no charges for home care, regardless of care recipients’ savings.

And the NHS is far from perfect; it has a lot to learn from social services about the management of long-term conditions, which often seems to take second place to the more life-affirming business of ‘curing’ people in hospitals. There would still be a role for local authorities, in managing interfaces with housing and other services, in promoting public health and preventative services, and in acting as champions and advocates for their residents – perhaps through continuing to play a part in assessments of need.

There are elements of today’s announcement that should be celebrated, but it is still tinkering with the system rather than seeking to transform and upgrade arrangements that date back 70 years. There has been a lot of talk about better joint working between the NHS and local government, but progress has been limited in London.  I’m afraid that the consequences of missing the opportunity for more fundamental structural change – or at least beginning a debate about it – will become increasingly apparent in the next few years.

Paying the price

Saying that Londoners are underpaid may not win many votes outside the M25, but persistently low pay is a huge problem for the capital and its citizens.

One way of looking at this is to compare Londoners’ salaries to the benchmark set by the London Living Wage (£10.85 in 2020/21), which is calculated as a rate that meets “everyday needs”. The chart below compares this benchmark to London’s 10th and 25th percentile pay rates – that is, the highest pay for the bottom 10 per cent and bottom 25 per cent of earners respectively – for sectors where there are enough workers to enable reliable estimates.

The chart shows where London’s low pay problem is concentrated. Twenty-five per cent of workers in retail, hospitality, admin support (jobs like security guards), social work (bundled with better-paid health jobs above), and entertainment were being paid less than the minimum hourly rate needed to live in London in 2020. Hospitality wages are particularly low: more than 60 per cent of workers in that sector were paid less than the London Living Wage.

There are two other things worth noting. Firstly, low pay may be a national problem, but it is more acute in London. Loughborough University research on “minimum income standards” indicates that Londoners in different household types need between 20 and 60 per cent more than people in other UK urban areas to afford a decent quality of life.

London jobs do pay a wage premium, but this is less than 10 per cent at the bottom end of low-paid sectors such as hospitality, security, residential care work and construction. In other words, the workers who most need the wage premium to live in London are also those least likely to get it.

Second, London’s lowest-paid sectors – industries such as food production (one of the lowest paid manufacturing sub-sectors), hospitality and social care – are some of those with the most acute labour shortages at the moment. (Others shortages, such as of HGV drivers, are complicated by the need for specialist training and licences.) They are also the sectors which have been most dependent on overseas workers in recent years.

The issue of labour shortages is hitting the news – and supermarket shelves – right now,  though some suggest the problem will solve itself over the coming weeks, as the distorting effects of pandemic support measures are removed. The furlough scheme, which has been accused of keeping workers in defunct jobs, rather than pushing them to look for new ones, ends next month. But it has been winding down for a while – the number of furloughed jobs in London halved between the end of February and end of June (though this is a slower rate of decline than other English regions) – while labour shortages have persisted or worsened as the economy has re-opened.

The other element of pandemic support has been the temporary £20 per week increase in Universal Credit (UC). More than a million Londoners were claiming UC in June 2021, three times the number two years earlier. Some of these are people who are out of work, but nearly 400,000 are working Londoners whose pay is simply not adequate to their needs. The removal of the £20 per week increase in UC, also due to take place at the end of next month, might encourage some non-working Londoners into employment, but will also push more working Londoners into poverty.

If people won’t be forced back into low-paid jobs by the removal of state support, can we look overseas instead? As border restrictions relax, London may once again attract workers from around the world, though the new immigration regime will prevent new arrivals for working in some of the city’s most crisis-hit sectors. 

But by debating how we can use imported labour and benefit subsidies to fill jobs that don’t pay enough, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Beyond the question of basic morality, coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of this approach to staffing our shops, bars, restaurants, building sites and care homes. Low pay may even be holding back innovation, as the Resolution Foundation recently observed, and hence productivity growth.

London’s economy is likely to change dramatically in coming years as the long-term impacts of the pandemic combine with the impact of technology and action on climate change. To be ready for these changes and the opportunities and disruptions they will create, London needs to pay workers better (as proposed by my former colleagues at Centre for London) or find smarter ways of doing their jobs. We can no longer afford low wages. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Commuting again, cheek-to-cheek?

People are starting to come back to Central London, even if caution about rising case numbers, new variants and the onset of summer holidays mean the recovery is slow burn rather than big bang.

The graph below compares Transport for London (TfL) data on use of contactless and Oyster cards to tap in and out of stations on three sample days, according to different types of station (more detailed data and the station typology can be seen here). The days, chosen by me, are the last Thursday in July this year and last year, and the last Thursday in February last year. 

Screenshot 2021 08 12 at 14.14.00

The change between July 2020 and July 2021 is striking. Each group of stations saw around twice as many taps at the end of last month compared to the previous July, when restrictions were similarly relaxed, with a slightly stronger recovery for ‘City’ and ‘Tourist’ destinations, though ‘City’ station usage (which includes Canary Wharf, Holborn and Clerkenwell) remains only a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Comparisons with February 2020 show we are still a long way from business as usual, and it will be interesting to see whether change accelerates in September. But the overall picture looks positive for those who want to see people – the lifeblood of Central London – return to its streets, and is in line with the “organic” return to cities that James Forsyth wrote about in The Times last week.  

However, there could be bumps in the track ahead. One relates to human behaviour. Like many people, I have found my recent train and Tube trips a pretty pleasant experience. I’ve had a seat and not been too close to other people, even if wearing a mask is a minor spec-fogging inconvenience.

The closer we get to pre-pandemic levels of loading, however, the closer we will get to crowding levels that we find uncomfortable. It’s hard to say in advance what these will be – standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, armpit-to-nostril? – and tolerances will vary, but I suspect each of us could reach a tipping point where we no longer feel so happy using the Tube, however low Covid cases may be. 

More staggered commuting hours may mitigate crowding. And we can expect some reduction in demand from increased working from home, though if everyone works from home on Monday and Friday it will do little to ameliorate crowding midweek. But I suspect there will be a self-regulating brake on levels of Tube usage over the next few years at least, and that brake will apply itself at a lower level than before the pandemic.

The problem will become a whole lot worse if Transport for London’s funding deal, still being thrashed out with government, forces cuts in service frequency and capacity, as government has suggested it might. A recent national poll suggested that 23 per cent of people anticipate using public transport less, with most of those expecting to use cars more. In London, congestion, the soon-to-be enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone and parking charges may make that less of an option. But squeezing services could increase crowding, and in turn drive more people away from public transport – maybe to walk or cycle, but maybe just to stay away from Central London altogether.

TfL needs a funding deal that recognises how precarious London’s recovery could be, and how easily service cutbacks could push the Tube into spiral of overcrowding, falling passenger numbers and falling revenues. This means looking beyond reliance on fares for the next few years at least, to run the system as a vital amenity for urban recovery, rather than a commercial service to customers. If the government wants people to come back into London and other city centres, it needs to support public transport systems that marry environmental sustainability with economic vitality.

First published by OnLondon.

Bringing beauty back

Sometimes it seems like the government is determined to turn people like me against its planning reforms.

While it is still unclear how the new system will operate in London, planning reform should help with housing delivery. The idea of shifting from “development control” to “zoning” seems inherently reasonable. Too much time and money is spent by developers, consultants, councillors and planners thrashing out permissions for individual schemes, balancing housing targets with local campaigners’ concerns, design considerations, viability assessments and national policy.

Pushing those debates “upstream”, to properly involve local people in preparing local plans and design codes and then allowing councils, housing associations and developers to get on with building, should both empower citizens, and reduce red-tape and delays.

Furthermore, given the shoddiness of some recent housing, the government is right to underline the importance of design quality throughout. Good design will help secure community assent for urgently-needed new development and also create better places, improve everyday life, and ensure that we enhance our landscape with beautiful new buildings that can last, rather than despoiling it with crappy ones which will make future generations scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for Place, secretary of state Robert Jenrick underlined the importance attached by government to design, citing the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which threads “beauty” into policy, and a National Model Design Code, which sets the framework for local codes.

The Office for Place itself, which will initially be based in Jenrick’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith, who headed the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, will support communities and the development industry in creating “popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places”.

So far, so laudable. But Jenrick seemed unable to resist lunging for the big red button marked “culture war”, declaring that “Poll after poll suggests we prefer the homes built before planning really began with the 1947 Planning Act, not those that came after,” and decrying unspecified “post-war mistakes”.

This broad dismissal of post-war design and planning prompts questions and concerns about precisely how “beauty” will be defined, especially given extensive press briefing about “traditional architectural styles” and local materials. Is beauty to be defined as traditional, and vice-versa? There seems to be a tide of anti-modernist sentiment. In a recently article called ‘Why is the Modern World So Ugly?’, Alan de Botton asserted that “when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo”.

This seems sweeping to say the least. It is true that Adolf Loos rejected the highly decorated styles of the early 20th Century in his writings, which are often seen as a foundation stone of modernism, and Le Corbusier talked of homes as “machines for living”. But it was gratuitous ornament that they rejected, not the whole concept of beauty. For the early modernists, the beauty of structures resided in the honest and expressive use of good materials, not in applying “lipstick to the gorilla”.

London, like other UK cities, has some great examples of modernist housing, much of it designed by the huge teams of architects who worked for the post-war London County Council, for the Greater London Council and for boroughs such as Camden. Council estates like Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road, Churchill Gardens, Odhams Walk, Golden Lane and Balfron Tower are very different expressions of modernist style, but all were designed with an eye to beauty in their scale, in the interplay between materials and greenery, in the use of light and shadow.

These schemes are popular with residents too, as shown by recent controversies over redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill in Lambeth. And modernist private schemes such as the Barbican (pictured) and Blackheath’s Span Houses are also highly sought after. “Legions of international tourists normally flock to our market towns and cathedral cities,” Jenrick said. They increasingly flock to the Barbican and Blackheath too.

There are some poorly designed and built modernist housing developments in London –  idealistic vertical villages that now feel neglected and tired. But there are just as many recent horrors that have simply stuck on the coach lights, porticos and ionic columns of “traditional architecture” as lazy ornamentation or that have thoughtlessly and cheaply replicated the glossy glass panels, tiny rooms and appliquéd balconies of so many recent residential towers.

London has a rich modernist heritage of which it should be proud, and the city’s architects – many once again working for boroughs – are continuing to develop an architectural language that incorporates both tradition and innovation. It will be interesting to see how this can be reflected in city-wide and local design codes in coming years.

As Jenrick said, “there is wisdom to be drawn” from past experience. But this shouldn’t exclude modernism. As controversies over redevelopment rage, we need a broader debate to understand and criticise, but also value and learn from, what London’s architects and planners have built over the past 80 years.

First published by OnLondon.

Level 21

There is an argument to be made for regional levelling-up, even in the pages of On London. Poverty and ill-health may be spread throughout the country, but the productivity gap between London and other UK regions and cities is wide and has been growing. In 2018, London’s workers generated an average of £46 per hour worked compared to an average for £32 for England’s other city regions. And that gap is wider than in most other European countries.

This productivity gap results in significant fiscal transfers from London to the rest of the UK – nearly £4,000 per head each year. Building higher productivity in other UK regions should, in the long-term, help rebalance tax and spending across the country, as well as improving the lives of citizens. As the Prime Minister said in his levelling-up speech this morning, making every UK region as productive as London would make a huge difference.

And there are ways of stimulating productivity outside the capital. One is to invest more in research and development (R&D) in universities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, as was recently recommended in a report for NESTA. Another would be to accelerate development of Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting the major cities of northern England and complementing the north-south connections of HS2.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. One is cost. However much the PM asserts that “this is not a zero-sum” game, commitments cost money. Northern Powerhouse Rail would cost around £40 billion and levelling-up R&D spending would require about £4 billion extra each year. Both projects could generate significant returns in terms of productivity and tax revenues, but over the less electorally-helpful longer term.

That connects to the second problem, which is that both of these projects would directly benefit larger cities, helping to create and connect hubs of economic activity and growth in places such as Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham, which already have strong research universities. But few of these places vote Conservative in large numbers (the West Midlands is an exception, which may explain the choice of Coventry as the PM’s speech venue), nor is building their HE-led knowledge economy guaranteed to secure more votes.

The “red wall” votes that the PM is keen to shore up are from smaller towns, outlying areas, places that feel more left behind. It is true that if investment in cities was successful indirect benefits would spread much wider. Just as towns like Brighton and Basingstoke benefit from their proximity to London, smaller towns and cities clustered around the norther cities would gain.

There would be jobs directly created to support new city enterprises, commuters and hybrid workers spending more money locally, and new opportunities opened up so that, as the PM said, people wouldn’t have to move away from where they grew up (though speaking as someone who grew up in villages and small towns, I can tell the PM that getting away was my priority, not a terrible burden).

But I’m not sure the government is ready to make the case that urban investment helps everyone. The urban-dominated ‘Northern Powerhouse’ didn’t get a mention, nor did investment in R&D, nor did major rail infrastructure. Instead we had a breathless litany of initiatives – Football pitches! New roads! Cycle Lanes! Hydrogen! Will Jennings and colleagues recently described this as “governing as political spectacle”, committing to projects that make a quick, visible and maybe superficial difference, rather than a longer-lasting and systemic one. We’re back to Tony Blair calling, in a leaked memo, for “eye-catching initiatives with which I can be personally associated.”

It was positive that the speech turned to devolution and local leadership towards the end, though galling to hear the PM complain about how centralised the UK is, given how Sadiq Khan has been treated in recent months. It sounds like the forever-delayed Devolution White Paper may yet inform the Levelling Up White Paper expected in the autumn – though talk was of county-level devolution deals where local leadership aligned with government objectives, rather than a new settlement between the centre and localities.

Levelling-up itself remains elusive. There were nods to closing the productivity gap in the PM’s speech, but too much was given over to a generic but worthy list of ways to make places and people’s lives better across the country. These are important, but while they may mitigate regional imbalances, they don’t really address them. We’ll have to wait for the White Paper to see how the PM’s levelling up plans balance the serious and strategic, with the superficial and electoral.

First published by OnLondon, 15 July 2021.

A pretty bleak hope

I have a terrible admission. I suspect the Government has more or less made the right decision in relaxing restrictions from 19 July.

It’s clearly a fraught subject, but I can only take on trust what chief medical officers Chris Whitty said at the press conference yesterday (around 20 minutes in): whereas there was a strong scientific consensus for delay from 21 June, there is no such consensus now, and that there is “extremely wide agreement” that an ‘exit wave’ is inevitable, whenever restrictions are lifted. Those statements make it very hard to argue for continued imposition of some of the toughest government restrictions – on freedom of movement and assembly – that we have seen since World War 2.

The next few months will be bumpy, even if people take it as slowly as the Government is urging. Infection rates are falling in some places: the surge we saw in Brighton last month has subsided, but I suspect that this is a false dawn as students have dispersed (there have been similar slowdowns in other university cities). There have also been sharp drops in places like Blackburn, where this wave started, and peaked around a month ago. But I’d be surprised if cases didn’t go up again in coming months as people start deploying their new freedoms (though I get the impression that restrictions are already being ignored by some of the age groups who have seen most infections).

But I don’t think we’ll be going back into another full lockdown. I can’t see the point. In March to June last year, we didn’t really know what we were dealing with, how to treat it, how to test for it, whether we could inocculate against it. The lockdown bought us time. In January to April this year, we knew we had a vaccine that worked, so it would have been absurd not to seek to suppress cases of a deadly virus while the vaccine was deployed through the population.

Now, apart from younger people and refuseniks, we are as vaccinated as we are going to get. There is nothing new coming to save us. We need to get through the exit wave, and accept that there will be losses and damage (though scientists suggest that the difference will be one of timing rather than scale in response to different re-opening dates). And we need to hope – it’s a pretty bleak hope – that the NHS can cope and that we will be safer the other side. Despite the rhetoric, there have only ever been two strategies for dealing with covid: aquiring population immunity through infection and inocculation, or suppressing the disease. Suppression went out the window early on (and can’t really work long-term on an individual country basis), so we are left with managing the timing and route to population immunity.

The Government’s approach can easily look callous, however. The latest guidance for clinically vulnerable people more or less amounts to ‘Don’t get covid’, and we still lack adequate pay and protection for people forced to isolate because of the illness – particularly those in more exposed professions. I can see the case for replacing precautionary quarantine with a regime based on testing and symptoms, but it can’t make sense for people who know they have covid to be forced to go to work. These blindspots make the Government look at the very least careless about those who are clinically or economically vulnerable. I can’t understand why they don’t see this.

So I’m looking forward to standing near a bar again, to saying goodbye to bossy signage, QR codes and performative perspex, to returning to packed gigs in due course. But I’ll be wearing my mask on the train, and approaching the next phase of the pandemic with trepidation not celebration.

Buy with a little help

Should wider home ownership be a public policy objective? It is one of the big fault lines in housing policy debates. Advocates argue that ownership represents better value than renting, offers people a way to build up capital and creates more stable neighbourhoods. Sceptics say that our obsession with property ownership is diverting investment from more socially useful channels and fuelling a monstrous bubble of unaffordable house prices.

Both arguments are true to an extent. Home ownership has built up capital for generations and supported social mobility, but as prices have shot up more and more people have been locked out. Home ownership rose through the 20th Century, from fewer than 25 per cent of households in 1918 to nearly 70 per cent in 2001, though it has fallen back since then and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008/09. 

In London, ownership fell sharply for 25-34 year olds in the first years of this century. Fifty per cent of that age group were owner-occupiers in 2001, but only 27 per cent were in 2016. The proportion has risen slightly since then (as a result of stalled prices and extended availability of Help to Buy loans), but remains low by historic standards. 

It’s not hard to see why: mortgages may be relatively affordable, but the 2019/20 English Housing Survey, published this week, found that the median deposit for London’s first time buyers was £70,000 – more than twice the median salary. Given that less than half of those renting privately have any savings at all, it is mainly those with family wealth (“the Bank of Mum and Dad”) who can buy a property.

Some buyers have been assisted by the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme (H2B), which was launched in 2013. It allows buyers to borrow a proportion of their deposit from the state and repay it when they sell-up or remortgage. Take up was initially low in London, but has increased since the maximum loan available was raised in 2016.

The scheme has been controversial. By stoking demand while doing to nothing to boost housing supply, it has been accused of pushing up prices. Restricting the scheme to new-builds has fuelled overpriced, poor quality schemes aimed primarily at the H2B market. These is also a risk that both government and house-buyers are left with losses in a period of stagnating prices. And now, the government has started winding the scheme down, restricting it to first-time buyers, and planning to shut it down completely by 2023. They have not said what, if anything, will replace it.

What is to be done? Many would advocate a huge increase in social housing provision and an end to the obsession with the “property ladder”. We certainly need more social housing. But as someone who bought a home when they were relatively cheap, I am uneasy with “Generation X-plaining” to younger people that they should be happy renting and miss out on the security and opportunities that can come with home ownership. And London’s recovery from coronavirus will not be helped if people who want to buy have to move out of the city (or choose wealthier parents). 

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to UK house prices as we recover from the Covid crisis. As the Stamp Duty holiday ends and the recession bites, the market may slow or even go into reverse. London already has the lowest rate of house price growth in England. Market moderation is welcome, but London would need a precipitous and damaging crash in prices (which would freeze the supply of new homes for sale) to bring them in line with wages and savings. Even the government’s favoured solution – discounted “first homes” – would require deposits beyond the means of many Londoners.

There is a powerful moral case for supporting first-time buyers, particularly those without family wealth, and the core of the H2B approach – a state-sponsored loan that is repaid as and when property prices rise – seems sound. But the scheme needs fixing. Firstly, it should not be restricted to new build, thereby tying young people into an expensive and mixed-quality market. Its primary purpose should be levelling the playing field, not “stimulating the market”. And the scheme should be able to run for longer than five years, particularly given the choppy conditions of the property market right now.

Would this simply fuel the speculative fires of the UK housing market? Maybe. But punishing young people from poorer backgrounds for the exuberance of property speculation seems absurd and unfair. So we should accompany support for first time buyers, with reform of the tax breaks that make home ownership so attractive as an investment – for example, the UK’s outdated and regressive property taxes, and even the exemption of family homes from capital gains and inheritance taxes. There is no reason, beyond electoral calculation, that homes and homes alone should allow untaxed capital accumulation. 

Restricting house-buying to wealthy families is a problem. Runaway house price inflation has also been a problem. Both problems have been most acute in London in recent years, and they need to be tackled together if the city is to offer opportunity to present and future citizens alike as it recovers from the pandemic. 

First published by OnLondon.

Some speculation…

In March 2020, UK office workers embarked on an unplanned and unprecedented experiment in home working. During 2020, home working rates were three times higher than before the pandemic; and four times higher for people employed in London. The experiment went pretty well, all things considered. The tech generally worked, even if the novelty of video meetings from cramped bedrooms quickly wore off, and productivity seems to have been sustained – at least in the short term.

A bigger and more complex experiment lies ahead. What will happen to ‘office jobs’ in the future, and what implications will this have for workers, for careers, for places – particularly places such as city centres?

This rather long article is an attempt to work through my thoughts on these questions, so is necessarily speculative (and at least in part inevitably wrong).

All in or all out?

Unlike the mandatory and largely uniform experiment of lockdown, the next experiment will see a variety of models, driven by shifting and varying patterns of government regulation, the needs and cultures of different industry sectors, and employer and worker preferences. With the exception of a few banks who still seem to be playing by Wall Street rules (“Lunch is for wimps” etc), it doesn’t look like many employers are ready to demand all staff are back in the office full time.

This would have felt like a regressive step even before the pandemic; home-working rates have been creeping up over the past ten years, encouraged by employers’ focus on ‘agility’, better technology for communication (and surveillance), and strengthened rights to work flexibly. Now that working habits and norms have caught up with the technology, reverting to the ‘nine to five’ presenteeism seems self-defeating as well as unfair – particularly for people looking after children (predominantly women) who would find themselves squeezed once again by childcare timetables.

At the other end of the spectrum, fully remote working coped during the crisis, but can this be sustained? Many workers felt that they were drawing down the reserves of social capital they had built with colleagues. Increases in task productivity are offset by more difficult team productivity. Online tools may help smooth collaboration and learning, particularly for younger ‘digital native’ workers, but in my last workplace, these were the very workers who wanted to be back in the office – to escape from parents and cramped flatshares, and to meet up with colleagues and peers.

Working away from the office may also make it harder for younger employees to learn the trick of the trade – how to behave in meetings, how to give and receive criticism, how to make a pitch, how to manage a difficult client – or for new employees to get to grips with all the unspoken aspects of corporate culture. All these can no doubt be taught formally, but for most of us they have been learned informally, even osmotically – by watching, listening and modelling.

Hybridities – beginning of a great adventure?

So, while most office workers are still at home, it is ‘hybrid working’ that is expected to dominate in the future, with people spending two or three days in the office and the rest working from home (or another remote workspace).

This could be entirely unstructured, allowing considerable discretion as to where and when employees work, and already is in many workplaces. But wider adoption could pose problems. First, most workers would choose to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, and in the office mid-week. If this approach was widely adopted it could lead to a sharp drop in demand for city centre services but would make it hard for firms to cut costs by reducing floorspace. Perhaps more seriously, it would risk reinstating a divide between those who were willing and able to be in the office more (principally men without caring responsibilities), and those who worked from home more (often women with caring responsibilities). The former have tended to do better in terms of career progression, even when the latter are more productive.

If these and other advantages are sustained, you could quite easily see a tipping point, as workers find it easier to collaborate, but also to compete, by being in the office. Hybrid working could remain permitted in theory, but become increasingly rare in practice,

Alternatively, management could decide who came in on which days. But this isn’t problem free either. Do you bring whole teams in together, or do you mix them up? Do shift patterns change so everybody gets some Mondays and Fridays at home? Can online tools work as well for informal as well as formal collaboration, when some people are in the office and others are at home? Is it really fair to force workers – particularly those for whom home working is difficult – to stay away?

But – to step back for a moment – why do we go into an office at all? We office worker types risk not only thinking everyone else is an office worker, but also that everybody’s office job is like our own. In fact, ‘office jobs’ contain multitudes – from conceptualising, designing and selling products, to talking to clients and collaborators, to analysing data, writing reports and coding, to monitoring service delivery, to managing staff, to maligning management and gossiping about Love Island. In varying proportions, even highly-skilled ‘knowledge economy’ jobs involve ‘relational’ work (essentially talking to other people) and more task-focused ‘programmable’ work.

There are some jobs dominated by ‘programmable’ work that can be carried out almost entirely autonomously, they are a minority. (And as a recent report argued such ‘work anywhere’ jobs can as easily move overseas as they can move out of UK city centres.) For the rest of us, adapting our workflows so that we can concentrate more ‘programmable’ work into days away from the office may require the type of flexibility that is hard to align with a structured approach to hybrid working.

In the short-term, therefore, I think we will see a period of experimentation. Different firms will try out different models of office, hybrid and remote working, testing out their impact on staff morale, retention and productivity. In an increasingly fluid labour market, you could see some employers targeting packages at younger workers, and some offering a deal that better suits people with children. It could be quite tumultuous.

But my hunch is that office and remote working models will begin to dominate in the medium term, because they have a coherence and support a common culture with which hybrid models struggle. Firms will reach tipping points where almost everyone is in all week, or almost nobody is; one of those will become the dominant model for particular firms or whole sectors, and decisions on leases and employment terms will reflect that. Neither model will be entirely pure: office-based jobs will probably allow more flexible working than before the pandemic, and remote-working employers will still bring staff together for structured collaboration sessions. But my guess is that working patterns will be 90:10 rather than 60:40.

Cities and centres – inertia counts

So, what does this all mean for our cities, and for London in particular? I suspect there are three scenarios: decline, dispersal and doubling down. Cities could see their centres decline in absolute and relative terms, losing jobs and population – particularly wealthier people, who can afford choice and are less tied to lower-paid service sector jobs. This would be disastrous in economic and environmental terms, as car-dependent sprawl spread through the countryside, and the problems of poverty and dereliction increased in cities. However, while there are some signs of ‘de-urbanisation’ in recent UK population figures, this feels the least likely option, not only because of the continuing appetite for some office working discussed above, but also because of the polutical risks involved in allowing this to happen.

A less dramatic variant would be dispersed patterns of working in and around core cities – perhaps realising the ‘fifteen-minute city’ vision that has caught the imagination of many city planners. I can see this taking hold, particularly for some sectors and some job types. More ‘relational’ jobs (consulting and advisory services, advertising, publishing) may stay in the city, benefitting from all the visible and invisible spillovers of agglomeration, while more ‘programmable’ jobs (coders, technicians, web designers) move out (or, as mentioned earlier, maybe even go offshore).

A recent OECD report suggested corporations would seek to relocate offices out of city centres. But how much would an employer gain by moving out of a city such as London (or Birmingham, or Manchester) with highly developed radial public transport systems and ecosystems of business services. Moving from London to Colchester, Crawley or Cranfield would inconvenience many more workers than it would help, at a time when businesses follow talent rather than vice versa. Inertia has an impact. So I suspect that most firms that retain office-based working will remain in city centres, and that the savings to be made from reducing footprints will be limited – though you can expect tenants to negotiate hard when leases come up.

There is still a longer-term question: will new start-ups see the value in city centre offices, or will they naturally adopt a more dispersed business model? Designing in dispersed working from the outset makes a lot more sense than trying to retrofit corporate structures, processes and cultures. But there’s a paradox here. The young people who work in such businesses are also the young people who are drawn to cities for the richness of professional and personal opportunity, for culture and recreation, and often to be with their peer group after university. If dispersed working is adopted by a new generation of firms, it may be dispersal within rather than dispersal from big cities.

The ‘doubling down’ scenario, where city centre working intensifies, seems the least likely at first glance. The co-incidence of a pandemic and technological change has created both a driver and an enabler for more dispersed working. But in the long-term, policy will make a difference and policy should be favouring urban growth (despite the electoral politics of ‘levelling up’).

We know that cities are more efficient than sprawl in terms of their carbon impact, and we know that government policy is refocusing new housing into cities, after a flirtation with more dispersed settlement. We can also expect business travel by air to decline, as carbon targets bite. All of these factors suggest that economic growth may concentrate in a few densely-mixed urban centres, well connected by lower carbon transport, rather than being spread through a network of offices within a country or a global region. The role of these cities and of offices within them will change – with extended commuting patterns, less generic retail, and offices that are platforms for collaboration and meeting rather than for routine administration – but they have successfully changed before.

The UK’s cities have borne the brunt of the health and economic harms arising from a pandemic. They will face the steepest road to recovery, and some may struggle to get back on their feet. But over time, I think our sociable natures will combine with the continuing strength of agglomeration, the inertia of infrastructure and the growing urgency of climate action, to enable cities to bounce back. It will be a choppy few years. Businesses need to be ready to experiment and adapt, without betting the house prematurely on any particular model. Governments need to respond with the policies and investments to make this recovery economically dynamic, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

Unnovation

After the enforced hibernation of winter, we took a week’s holiday, in the hills and beaches, hotels, pubs and restaurants of north-east England.

Continuing covid regulations, staff shortages and cultural nervousness have conspired to create some very odd regimes. Some hotels seemed to demand face coverings even in the open air, others seemed pretty blasé about it. One hotel refused to provide a morning paper ‘because of the pandemic’, while others delivered a paper to the room and had others available over breakfast.

Ordering systems are weird too. One hotel laid on a breakfast buffet, but required guests to put on awkward proctologist gloves before approaching the spread – a helpful brake on the ‘breakfast buffet inflation’ described by Giles Coren in a column at the weekend. A café brought menus to the table, but then asked you to go inside to order at a counter, slightly defeating the point of table service.

But the most perplexing was the four-star hotel that insisted that all orders were processed through its clunky app, resulting in items being delivered to your table in random order, often without cutlery, a bit like an in-house Deliveroo service. You didn’t have to use the app if you made enough fuss, but then had to go and huddle with one of the friendly waiting staff by a console. The idea of staff noting orders on a pad or device, then inputting them, seemed impossible.

But more seriously, there was no sense of anyone being in charge of their systems and of individual guests’ evenings. All the skills that create good service – awareness, anticipation, empathy – had been stripped out, reducing the skilled job of waiting tables to a much less skilled bussing operation (which I suppose at least aligns with the Government’s new immigration rules).

I delivered these whinges to the hotel in question, but I am worried that the combination of staff shortages and residual nervousness (there is no evidence of anyone catching covid from a paper menu) may enable more and more of this type of ‘unnovation’, deskilling workers and cheapening customer experiences.

It’s worth comparing this experience with McDonalds. Though I have in the past described their ordering system as a “bleak, beef-based game of bingo”, I’ve become used to it. And the system works – the interface is well-designed (even if the relentless upselling is tiresome), and nobody goes to McDonalds looking for advice and engagement from the staff. Indeed, I can see that the system actually improves service and covid security by enabling service to your table or car.

But the impersonal nature of transactions is, if not the point of McDonalds, at least a feature that customers are happy to accept for the sake of fast service and low prices. Other hotels and restaurants should be careful not to draw the wrong lessons, however short of staff they are at the moment. Creating a half-arsed fast-food experience in a four-star setting at fine-dining prices seems a recipe for irrelevance not renaissance.

Ten years after

Making the case for London has been complicated during the pandemic. It risks conflict with the ‘metropolitan elite’ myths so fondly fostered by government (and so ably skewered by my former colleague Jack Brown on Monday’s Start the Week). And, like many civic leaders, Sadiq Khan has been trying to tell a story of devastating impact to a seemingly indifferent government, but also to entice workers and tourists back into a renascent capital by reminding them of all London has to offer.

The pandemic has indeed had a particularly brutal impact on London’s citizens and economy, but recent figures suggest that the tide may be beginning to turn. Tube and bus ridership is higher than any time since March 2020, though still up to 50 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Google mobility data also shows a slight return to central London, though more for retail and recreation than for work (which accords with higher public transport use at weekends).

And, according to the latest ONS figures, London’s unemployment rate has also dropped, falling from 7.5 per cent in the three months to January, to 6.5 per cent in the three months to April. Unemployment is still higher than any other region’s, London boroughs still have some of the highest claimant counts and furlough rates in the country, and the economic impact of coronavirus has hit specific demographic groups hardest, but there are glimmers of hope.

So, it’s worth looking back to the last recession and recovery when London has hit hardest but recovered fastest. Could history repeat itself? As the chart below shows, London’s unemployment rate rose sharply ten years ago, and was more than two points higher than the UK’s in mid-2011, but then fell much more quickly, roughly tracking the national rate from 2014. A similar gap opened up last year, but has begun to narrow since January.

Unfortunately for London there were specific features of the 2011/12 recovery that favoured the capital. Quantitative easing, Government’s response to the financial crisis, diverted investment into booming equity and housing markets. And the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games may have had a minimal direct impact on spending (most of the construction was complete by 2012, and Olympic Games years displace normal tourism expenditure), but were a powerful showcase for the UK internationally, and for London in particular.

Added to this, ten years ago, Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London) was keen to make the case for the capital, and able to persuade the Coalition Government that starving London of cash was no way to help the rest of the country, so projects such as Crossrail and the Olympic Park legacy development went ahead.

None of these factors are present today. Rather than being boosted by cheap money, financial services have been sidelined in Brexit negotiations in favour of more picturesque and politically salient (but far less productive) industries like fisheries. Big infrastructure projects, such as the redevelopment of Euston Station for HS2, are being squeezed, hopes of a swift return to international travel are receding, and the narrative of ‘levelling up’ looks pretty hostile to London and its nine million citizens.

At the G7 Summit last weekend, Boris Johnson warned against repeating the mistakes of the ten years ago, when (as he didn’t quite say) austerity extended and deepened the impact of the recession for many people and places. This is right, but the correct lesson is to extend support wherever it is needed to ‘level up’ the prosperity and life chances of citizens and communities, not to stall the UK’s economic engine in pursuit of headlines or electoral advantage.