It is time to revive Royal Commissions
A disclaimer: the title of this blog is not mine. Its latest usage is from the New York Post to describe the flight of New Yorkers from Gotham City to the suburbs and beyond as Coronavirus hollows out the metropolis. When I wrote my first blog for HQN in June 2019, I promised to cover a wide and eclectic range of topics, sometimes looking beyond the UK, so I was interested in this story as it seems to reflect what is happening here, where there has been a surge of interest in suburban, rural, and coastal properties. The solicitor I used for my recent house purchase is dealing with loads of London buyers seeking a place along the Kent coast. In local parlance they are known as ‘DFLs’ (Down from London).
Whether this change in the property market will be a long-term trend remains to be seen but one thing that seems certain is that homeworking is here to stay. For the housing sector, at least, this was confirmed by HQN’s recent survey of members which found that 80 % of staff have been working from home during the pandemic, and that around 60% would work from home in the future. The post-pandemic world will be a very different place. If I had any spare cash I would invest in companies doing loft extensions and garden offices. Their business will boom as people seek more space at home to work and self-isolate.
All of this will have profound implications for the property market with millions of square feet of office space becoming available. It will decimate public transport systems and have profound impacts on city centre services – pubs, sandwich bars, gyms, and others.
One of the key lessons of the pandemic is the deep housing inequalities that have been exposed, with bad housing and high density neighbourhoods being linked to much higher death rates, something I wrote about here. The second wave appears to be repeating the pattern. This recent report about how people in newer homes have been less happy during lockdown is also revealing. Access to a garden or terrace was found to be the most critical factor in feeling comfortable at home, and people living in newer homes were also more unhappy with their neighbourhoods. The truth is that we have been building a lot of rubbish in recent years – something that needs to be investigated in depth once this is all over.
Another key lesson, for me at least, is that our centralised system of government has failed. Over the past 40 years Whitehall has taken on more and more power to itself, while local government has been defunded and marginalised. In my first blog I also mentioned that I would write about Germany, a country I have visited several times in recent times. There, Covid-19 testing is devolved to GP practices. If you feel unwell you have to seek a test, at risk of a hefty fine. If you are positive, the GP will refer you to the locally-run tracing team who follow up contacts and ensure people self-isolate. Local mayors issue daily bulletins on cases and local rules. By contrast, my town and district council have been found missing in action during the pandemic, as has the local GP practice. A neighbour of mine had Covid-19 very badly back in March. He called 111 and his local GP. Neither was interested, and so he does not appear as a ‘case’. It is therefore hardly surprising that the number of cases is now going up as testing increases. By contrast, the decentralised German system works well. The £12bn spent on the UK’s failing test and trace scheme would have been better spent in funding local GPs and supporting town halls to set up local tracing services.
I saw David Dimbleby being interviewed this week and he had one word to sum up the national mood: “introspection”. We must, he said, reflect on how we live; what we eat and where it comes from; what is important in life; the value of friends and community; and reject the chimera of wasteful foreign travel and useless consumption. I agree, but we need to take forward this mood for introspection in a serious and exhaustive way.
Going back to the future, I would do this by setting up two Royal Commissions to inquire into both of the key issues I have mentioned: the failure of housing policy and the failure of centralised government. Royal Commissions have fallen out of favour in recent years – the last one was over 20 years ago – but in the past governments would often set them up to deal with issues of major national concern. The unprecedented crisis of 2020 would surely justify their revival? There needs to be a bi-partisan recognition that the past 40 years of housing policy have been a terrible failure at every level. The last Royal Commission on housing was in 1884 when the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes was set up. It held 51 meetings, asked 18,000 questions, toured the country extensively to look at the slums and to speak to witnesses, and produced a comprehensive report that fed into the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885. This allowed district councils to obtain Treasury loans, empowered the Local Government Board to shut down unhealthy houses, and made it illegal for landlords to let houses that fell below a basic sanitary standard.
Can you imagine a similar inquiry being set up now, to inquire into the failures of housing policy and the excess deaths caused by bad housing? It could tour the country, talk to hundreds of expert witnesses and provide an in-depth analysis of what went wrong. Bring it on, I say.