With threats that our city centres will become ghost towns, and that working from home is killing the economy, there’s a cataclysmic tone ringing around conversations about work.
The simple truth is, commuters are revolting. Why does this matter?
We’ve all seen the images of London in lock down; eerily quiet streets with all the paraphernalia of a big city, but no people, little traffic and a sense of curious calm.
Working from home has created a culture shift. Cocooned in our bubbles for safety, we have been separated from the mutual enforcement of convention. Life as we choose to live it has become more available to more people. We know – I know – that working conventional hours on tasks which you can do just as well at 6am or 8pm is far less of an issue when working from home. There are downsides, undoubtedly, and many with awful consequences:
- Domestic violence has increased.
- Childcare has become an even more gendered and problematic issue.
- Income differentials have been even more pronounced; who can work from home and who can’t, and why?
In the context of COVID, where existing inequalities are highlighted as falling disproportionately on Black, Asian and ethnically diverse groups held in low income and front-facing jobs we can’t escape the fact that there are consequences from this shift.
- We’re seeing that with Black Lives Matter.
- We’re going to see too, greater calls for environmental responsibility; all that clean air and birdsong is hard to give up.
- Women will protest against the rolling back of hard-won freedoms from domestic labour and access to work.
- The growth in freelancing in the last decade is now being questioned; has it simply become a way to outsource a duty of care and responsibility while not paying for it?
- The middle classes will find themselves exposed to unemployment as furlough ends and companies restructure, and will question the validity of welfare decisions and provisions.
- Then there’s the anger of lower income groups who are having it even harder as a result of it all, many already denied the luxury of furlough.
In short, everything will rapidly become open to question; it already has for those with the eyes to see and ears to hear.
Being told to return to work in order to keep Byron, Pret a Manger or Pizza Express profitable sticks in the craw in this context.
Instead, and unacknowledged, we are seeing local coffee shops, bakers, greengrocers, corner shops, hardware stores and the like booming like never before. More people are walking, and what lies within 15 minutes’ walk matters more than ever. The city centre seems very far way, even if you cycle, and many more are.
And of course, there’s BREXIT.
Looming on the horizon are questions about food and energy supply along with the price of everything we import as we enter an uncertain future in 2021.
But also the question of urban centre versus provincial periphery – those who appeared to ‘win’ because of the unfettered and escalating globalisation of the last few decades versus those who ‘lost’ – surfaces again.
Why does this matter?
London’s pre-eminent position within the UK economy came about because of the concentration of Britain’s ambition and intelligence within its compass and within a context of a changing economy where industry was abandoned for services.
Now, this creates a direct challenge to the UK Government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’. And it does this by leveraging that most economic of concepts – market forces.
The withdrawal of labour was a classic tool of resistance to oppressive structures. Now, by insisting we work from home, we can force similar challenges to today’s oppression, the tyrants of property speculation and investment, perhaps the most efficient system of money laundering ever invented. Let’s also not forget, once corporations get over the costs of mothballing large buildings in the sky, they are also saving money. Meanwhile, those businesses at street level – shops, restaurants, cafes and bars – which rely on people in city centres will go to the wall. There will be job losses.
We can’t just wash our hands of the consequences.
We’re beginning to understand that to ‘level up’ elsewhere, London will have to ‘level down’.
And that, dear readers, is the rub.
That’s where it gets scary for the government and those with power.
Because this time the fight will be not just at the ballot box, it will be in every sphere of life, challenging every single government policy or act. Perhaps we can work together to challenge governments to:
- support small businesses in city centres to help manage the exist of populations;
- provide job retention schemes for a further year for sectors like the arts;
- ensure protections for workers already facing disadvantage because of race or gender;
- develop, pay for, and work into policy true anti-racism and anti-sexism …
Root and branch reform.
All this has to be paid for.
- Tax the big tech giants as was promised but failed in delivery.
- Stop subsidising private medical care at the expense of national provision, free at the point of use.
- Encourage leveling up on a local level by spending your money there, and wisely.
- Collaborate, but not on the basis of one size fits all, but with genuine respect and understanding of diversity and inclusion and ensuring that no-one is left behind.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
T S Eliot, Little Gidding