Cllr John Moss is a councillor in Waltham Forest and a former Parliamentary Candidate.
Local councillors know only too well the tightrope we walk between the very reasonable requirement to build new homes and the opposition to that, which comes from existing residents, fearful of the impact of new homes on their community and their current lifestyles.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to huge changes in the way we live and work. Many are calling for some of these changes to become permanent – more walking and cycling for example – and the market will also force such changes, as traditional work, leisure, and shopping patterns change.
One thing that is almost certain to change is the amount of working from home. Early in the lockdown the hashtag #WFH was used by millions to show how they were coping. I suspect many enjoyed the extra time freed up by not commuting and the ability to put the washing on or do a bit of baking – and how it was possible to fit this all around a zoom call in a smart shirt and your pyjama bottoms at 8am.
So how will this affect planning? I suspect there will be two fundamental shifts. More emphasis on accessibility to local retail, leisure, and community facilities, and a far greater demand for space in which to work and to take a break from work.
Commuting long distances for an hour or more every day, in some cases crammed into busy trains, tubes, and buses, is not going to be popular. Nor do we want to return to the days when almost everybody drove to work (though a majority still do in all major urban centres apart from London).
This should lead to a greater demand for the distribution of workplaces into smaller suburban centres around major cities and into more distant towns around the country. We are unlikely to return to the old normal of being “in the office” 36 hours a week when we can efficiently work from home and travel only for important meetings.
Think of many local high streets and you will picture two storey shops with ground floor retail and storage above. Those upper floors could be the flexible workspaces needed to meet this demand. Redevelopment in these centres could have a couple of floors of apartments on top, but they will need to be different to meet the new demands.
In larger towns, look at some of the larger retail space, abandoned because that retail model has failed. Imagine instead, a vertical mix of retail, café, office, and cinema/bar/restaurant on the roof, bringing people and activity to the town centre 18 hours a day.
So, this crisis could have an upside in the revitalisation of smaller towns and suburban centres as more people are there for more of their time and accordingly spending more of their money there. But what about the homes in which we are going to be working from home?
It is often cited that the UK has old housing stock. I live in a much adapted 1920s semi-detached house and there are quite literally millions of Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, and early Second Elizabethan houses (and I mean houses) across the UK. The English Housing Survey shows, mostly, these are owner-occupied and under-occupied as well. Put simply, there is the space in them to #WFH without too much difficulty.
But what of the homes built in the last 20-30 years? These are often smaller, mostly apartments – especially in cities – and in many cases, they are occupied at the designed level or over-crowded. Very often, these properties are occupied by younger people or families with young adult family members. Working from home in these circumstances is much much harder.
So, my view is that we are going to need larger homes. We are going to need them closer to our suburban high streets and the centres of our smaller towns and less in our major cities. The received wisdom of denser town and city centres being the answer to the conundrum of continuing growth and tackling climate change isn’t wrong. But the economics of tall buildings with high numbers of small apartments falls apart if space to work and access to sufficiently generous external space is added to the design requirements.
We will need flexible workspaces in town centres, more houses with gardens for families, and larger apartments for younger people in smaller blocks, where they can use shared external spaces with neighbours they know.
If some good is to come out of the pandemic, a re-think on how and where we live and work which helps spread economic success beyond London can be one of them.