It has become a tired old cliché to say that we’re not going back to quite the same old world when the coronavirus crisis is over. Indeed we won’t be. But what is beginning to interest me is how some recent trends will be accentuated while others will be reversed. Presumably the numbers of people working from home for at least part of the week will increase. The decline of the High Street will speed up and, having got used to buying online, we will be doing more of it in future.
Many people, by contrast, confidently predict a reversal for globalisation, with many businesses acting to shorten their supply chains. The appeal of public transport will diminish somewhat and more of us may want to travel by car or bicycle – maybe more of the latter given that there will be even more pressure to cut air pollution, now we have experienced the joy of fresh air.
Another trend I am sure will be reversed is that towards apartment-living. It is hard to remember, a quarter of a century or so ago, when a flat was seen as a rather cheap and unappealing form of housing. Until the late 1990s Penthouse was just a naughty magazine, not a place where successful people would aspire to live – at least not outside London. In Manchester, city centre living meant a row of concrete council flats on the top of the Arndale Centre. But for years we have been sold the dream of high rise, city centre living. Our depopulated city centres have been reborn as ambitious people migrated away from humdrum suburbs to open-plan spaces in glass-fronted blocks, just a few yards’ stroll from bars, restaurants, theatres and the like.
And then? The government closed the bars and restaurants and told us we must stay indoors – and to do so for weeks on end through one of the most beautiful springs anyone can remember. Suddenly, those humdrum suburbs with their mock tudor and dappled lawns aren’t looking such a bad place to live after all. Happiness, for the past few weeks, has been a cherry tree. How many apartment dwellers would swap their swanky kitchen for a little square of turf surrounded by hedges?
When this is over – or, as if seems just now, if this is ever over – don’t be surprised if the relative value of flats and houses changes in favour of the latter. When the housing market reopens again the first question anyone is going to be asking as they walk through the door of any property won’t be: would this be a great place for entertaining? It will be: is this a place I would mind being locked down in for three months? No-one is going to be confident that we won’t be going through all this again, next time a novel virus leaps out of a Chinese wildlife market. If you can’t fly to Tuscany, take a train to Paris or even drive out to the countryside or the beach a garden is the one think that can make life tolerable.
You can expect, too, rural houses to increase in value relative to urban ones. That will be with one proviso, though: that the broadband is tolerable. Anyone who has been new to working at home these past few weeks will have realised there is just one greater source of misery than being cooped up in a flat when the sun is shining: a dodgy internet connection. The new des res is going to be a rural house and garden, surrounded by footpaths and bridelways, a little away from the sort of tourist hotspots where police send their drones to try to catch out people breaking the lockdown — and with at least 30 Mbits per second.
The only trouble is that state planners – who have become wedded to the idea of ever higher-density living – will want to ensure this remains for most people an elusive dream.