Blessed are the carbreakers

The Green London AM Jenny Jones has put out an odd little curate’s egg of a report complaining about the Mayor of London’s backing of residential housing projects at the cost of light industrial land (thanks to @leftoutside for the link).

I have to admit, the future of light industry in the big smoke is not something I have thought about before, there being so many other enormous and pressing moral and practical questions to detain your average London conspiracy theorist – the housing shortage, the City, the Russian billionaries, the housing shortage, the very existence of dire poverty in one of the world’s richest cities, the schools, the housing shortage, the growing population, the state of public transport, the state of the Victorian drains (that one will bite us on the arse in a few decades’ time, believe me, and I do mean on the arse) and of course the housing shortage.

So I thought about it. I put aside the shortcomings of the format – only a mother with a tin ear could love whoever wrote “Where will the car breakers, the coffee roasters, the plumbing and building suppliers go?” – and tried to consider the underlying economics. Jenny Jones does after all concede that there is a housing crisis, she simply seems to be asserting that solving it at the cost of light industry and wholesale is not viable. Could this be this true?

It is certainly true that London needs MOTs and plumbing supplies. It is certainly good that London has brewers (good grief, yes) and aerospace manufacturers. Do any of these things really need to be in zone 2? Ironically they went to Peckham and Charlton in the first place because it was cheap then. They’re still in Upton Park and Selhurst because it’s cheap now. And many of these sorts of businesses have been shipping right out to zone 6 (horrors!) and quietly tucking themselves down the Purley Way for years, with effects that most Londoners would consider beneficial – the spread of jobs out from the centre eases congestion on transport, means more people can walk or cycle to work and live further out to reduce their housing costs.

Most cities with any vision are actively trying to do this. When London moves whole government departments or BBC radio stations to other cities with greater jobs shortages and lower housing costs this is hailed as progressive and economically forward-thinking. One of the great advantages of the South East, fans of city studies will be aware, is the huge concentration of skilled workers that make the satellite towns like Croydon, Milton Keynes, Watford, Bedford et al viable for all kinds of businesses that need to be within reach of London, but really do not need to be twenty minutes’ bus ride from the City. With all the other problems that beset us, is it really going to kill us to have to go to zone 6 to work in a car-breaking business?

There is one sense in which I think her argument is getting at something real. There are certain kinds of businesses – and plumbing and building suppliers is one – that do need to be everywhere, for the benefit of the customers rather than the workers. I’ve lived, sans car, in places that are too posh for their local hardware store not to be crushed beneath the merciless advance of Planet Organic, and it’s bloody inconvenient. Most people in those sorts of places have cars and can get to the North Circular to go to B&Q, and I didn’t. Sucks to be me. But really, that problem just underlined how interconnected is the whole shebang and how oddly partial Jones’ take is. The hardware store gave up and Planet Organic moved in because the rent went up, and the rent went up because the owner realised loads of spiffy Planet Organic-type customers lived in their area and could support a business happy to pay astronomical rents, and the loads of spiffy customers were there in the first place collectively driving up the prices because, the housing shortage. Housing is the key to it all, because more housing comes a more diverse customer range, and that means a better mix of businesses. Anything else, however well-meaning, is basically propping up the current system.

But then I am hopelessly sad and pessimistic about London. I don’t like that it is essentially a city of the accountant and the ad exec and their attendant baristas any more than Jones does. I just don’t see that championing the plucky little aerospace worker’s right not to work in Croydon at the expense of reasonable housing costs for the accountant and the barista is going to do anything other than make the lives of absolutely everybody involved even more bloody than they already are.

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2 Comments

  1. In Jenny Jones defence, (am I playing my own Devil’s Advocate? Whatever) a lot of the housing development in zone 1 and 2 is for expensive flats which most people won’t be able to afford. So I can understand her hesitancy.

    The solution to that seems to be to make it easier to build cheaper flats but that’s a hard route to take, I certainly don’t get this weird top-down approach to light industry dispersal.

    1. Yeh but, to play your own Devil’s Advocacy back atcha, those zone 1 and 2 flats are expensive because, the housing shortage, not because they’re built of unicorn tears. Although I am perpetually staggered by just how expensive these things are – have you *seen* those new Lewisham developments?

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