When your old life has been disrupted by a major crisis, there are a number of possible ways to respond. One of the most tempting approaches is to seek to get back to the way things used to be. That rarely works, especially if circumstances have significantly changed. The other approach is to try and put your mind to what needs to be different and to the best ways of ensuring that those changes are as positive as they can possibly be.
So, it is important to start thinking about what it would be most helpful to do differently once we emerge from lockdown. Each of us will no doubt have our own theories about this. One of mine is that we need to focus on how we live and where we live, and on providing a better standard of living for those who most need it.
I believe there is going to be a need to remodel high streets and that the best way of doing this is to entirely rethink the nation’s approach to where we build housing. It is virtually certain that there is going to be a radical decline in the number of shops that are viable in most town centres, and that there will be a serious surplus in available office space in most towns and cities. At the same time, estate agents are reporting that they have been inundated by people trying to move out of large cities and acquire living space in the most picturesque parts of the country.
Put those two forces together and what we face is a whole series of miserably depressing shopping centres and disused office blocks dominating the physical centres of our communities across much of Yorkshire; accompanied by endless new housing estates gobbling up green fields in the suburbs.
If we leave things to market forces that will become a huge problem. As property prices decline in the town centres, the atmosphere of neglect will make those areas less attractive and it will become harder, not easier to develop them. Land will have to decline to incredibly low values to make it possible to develop it, and the types of development that are possible in low-value land in run-down areas is not going to be a popular choice of a place to live or work. If we do nothing to change market forces it will be more profitable for developers to go to a farmer’s field and build an estate from scratch. We will end up exaggerating, deepening and extending problems that already exist in some areas of Yorkshire. Large parts of areas like Bradford already have a stubborn surfeit of empty properties, whilst many people living in the surrounding suburbs are struggling to fight off efforts to swamp their community with new housing estates on every bit of attractive land.
To avoid this problem becoming acute in the majority of our town centres, we need a serious programme of government investment to go into actual levelling up. Instead of talk, we need genuine action. It is going to take significant financial incentives to refurbish disused office blocks and former department stores. We need that money channelled through local authorities who understand the needs of their areas. Alongside that programme of investment, there is an equally strong need to invest in better educational facilities and better leisure and recreation areas to lift the surrounding areas. We have to find ways to make it attractive for people to live in places where there used to be shops but could now face years of blight from ugly boarded up premises. It is only by enabling more people to enjoy living in these areas that we can give the necessary boost to the local cafes, bars and shops, to make them viable and to start an upward trend of repurposing our town centres.
Some of the necessary change can be achieved by providing incentives for private building developers, at the same time as disincentives are put in place to develop greenfield sites. Some of it can only be done by freeing up local councils, housing associations and charities to build for need and to rent out the properties. There is a serious shortage of affordable housing nationally and that has become acutely evident during the recent pandemic.
It has been bad enough during lockdown for anyone with high-quality accommodation, lots of space and access to open areas where they can exercise. It has been massively more challenging for anyone crowded into a flat in a run-down area who is worrying about the insecurity of their tenancy as they struggle to home educate children of different ages. Being stuck inside a damp, cold property for week after week is a miserable experience that carries its own health risks both physically and mentally. The nation can either shrug its shoulders over the huge inequalities of experience that people have gone through during the pandemic, or it can resolve to try and do something about it.
Effectively, what we need is a national reconstruction effort that starts with a clear understanding of the scale of the challenge involved in repairing inner cities that were already badly neglected before this started, and preventing many more town centres from heading down the same route. We need investment in providing quality homes for all that is coupled with a drive to attract modern businesses to want to locate in new science and innovation districts in places like Keighley or Barnsley.
The one thing we should have learned from this crisis is that, whilst some things are done well by private enterprise, other things have to be directed and managed by the state. The market won’t automatically solve every problem. Thought and planning has to go into solving problems and sometimes that involves finding the money to do the necessary but difficult and challenging things. Since the 2008 financial collapse, £645bn of quantitative easing funding has been created by the Bank of England and pumped into the banking system to ensure it didn’t collapse. It is time to start using that source of money constructively in the towns and cities of Yorkshire that are going to desperately need re-development once the pandemic is over. Attractive places to live and successful local businesses are important – not just the financial system.
It is possible that the imagination necessary to achieve this will emerge in many countries across the world as they face up to the challenges of the future and decide how best to go forward. Governments are going to need access to funds and the risk of inflation is incredibly low at a time of falling sales and economic decline. I leave it to the reader’s own judgment to decide whether the UK has a government that has the kind of imagination necessary to adopt such forward-looking policies with sufficient energy and determination. Or whether they will lecture us on the need for a new round of austerity and market-led solutions.