Transport minister Grant Shapps has suggested that even with increased levels of service, social distancing will so radically cut public transport capacity that commuters should walk or cycle to work wherever possible.
Shapps’ utterance has been pilloried for its apparent assumption that everyone lives within London zones 1 to 4. But dig a little deeper and it offers a glimpse of the Tories’ most painful Achilles heel, at the intersection of growth, environment and the housing crisis.
When the pandemic passes, the party will face renewed demands to do the usual Tory thing and deliver a growing or at least not-too-horribly mangled economy. Additionally, it will have to be capable of raising sufficient tax receipts to service the staggering levels of pandemic-related borrowing. They must also ensure more homes are built or risk seeing the housing crisis destroy the Tory voter base. But this must all be achieved without touching house prices or the green belt, while making progress toward net zero carbon emissions. Successive governments have (to say the least) struggled to address these conflicting priorities.
To date, the current administration has approached the problem by waving through newbuild housing estates on a colossal scale in the arc between Oxford and Cambridge. A new ring of towns is springing into being, satellites to supply London with commuters by low-carbon public transport. Except: how will all those people reach London, if social distancing empties the trains? They can hardly take Shapps’ advice and walk or cycle the 50 miles from Flitwick to Kings Cross every day.
The only plausible way out of the bind is if Barney Norris is right, when he speculates in these pages that coronavirus could drive a reboot of small-town life. Many of the Cambs or Northants commuters who’ve recently swapped cramped, expensive and unreliable train travel for Zoom meetings must be wondering, not unreasonably, whether their presence in the office really is required five days a week after lockdown ends. The combination of remote working, an illiquid housing market and an aversion to plague-filled commuter trains could drive a new wave of small-town SME startups, and perhaps with it an easing or even reversal of London’s seemingly inexorable economic centrifuge.
Of course this does not address the question of safety for those — predominantly further down the economic scale — who can neither work from home nor afford to live in London, and are thus forced to continue with a long and now hazardous commute. But maybe these groups will also respond by turning away from the metropolis in favour of the safer, friendlier, more affordable and pandemic-proof joys of small-town life. If so, let’s hope it becomes evident before too many more dormitory towns are built for a commuter lifestyle that’s looking increasingly like a relic of the twentieth century.