Big-shed nation

They sit by the road, windowless and vast. But what are they for? Joe Moran on the warehouses, logis

A new word has entered the vocabulary of environmental protest: megashed. A well-organised "stop the shed" campaign is currently centring on a disused RAF airfield just outside Andover, next to the busy A303, where Tesco plans to build an enormous distribution warehouse. Yet big sheds - those huge, windowless warehouses you see at major road intersections - have been around for nearly 40 years, and for most of their history they have been left off maps, unmentioned and ignored by the general public. So why is a diverse band of campaigners - including the former transport secretary George Young and the lead singer of the Troggs, Reg Presley - suddenly getting angry about them?

If you thought about them at all, you probably imagined big sheds to be a product of the dere gulated planning regime of the Thatcher era; in fact, big sheds were pioneered by a socialist retail society and championed by a minister who would later become a tabloid demon from the hard left. In the late 1960s the Co-op hatched a plan to build huge warehouses that would serve whole regions and increase its bulk purchasing power. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as the minister of technology was then known, awarded it a £150,000 innovation grant, in return for which it agreed to share its know-how with the industry. So in 1970, the Co-op built its first distribution centre at Birtley in County Durham, just off the A1. Birtley wasn't just huge, it was automated, with goods stacked on high racks reached by robotic cranes commanded by a giant ICI computer, allowing a then-astonishing 5,000 boxes an hour to be despatched to the shops.

The big-shed revolution really began in 1972 with the completion of the M6 and the linking up of the first thousand miles of motorway. LSSBs (large single-storey buildings) sprang up suddenly on low-lying land near motorways. Britain was losing its industrial base and importing more goods from abroad, and these imports needed more space to store them. The innovation of the Thatcher era was "just-in-time", a system first used by Toyota in Japan in the 1950s, which delivers goods only when they are needed, so they do not sit on a shelf losing value. By centralising their warehouse stock and keeping goods moving, firms could release cash flow, perhaps even sell things before they had to pay for them. Logistics, a trendier-sounding word than "haulage", was this new art of moving things around. Firms could outsource the whole operation, from finding warehouses to driving the juggernauts, to companies offering total "supply chain management solutions".

Logistics depended on location, and the property hot spot was right at the heart of the trunk-road system, in the Midlands. When the M69 from Leicester to Coventry opened in 1977, it created a "golden triangle" of motorways with the M1 and M6, giving the area the best transport links in Britain. From here, lorries could reach 92 per cent of the population and return the same day. Here is found Europe's biggest distribution park, the 500-acre Magna Park, founded in 1988 by an unlikely alliance of Asda and the Church of England. Companies that migrated there channelled their goods through the golden triangle to an extreme degree. Toyota's Magna Park warehouse, for example, was only 50 miles from its manufacturing plant at Burnaston near Derby. But instead of parts being shipped straight there, they were sent from Derby to its European distribution centre near Ghent in Belgium and then on to Magna Park - a journey of 583 miles - so the stock could be maintained at the minimum level.

Terminal architecture

Most of us might think this a strange way to run a business, but that just shows how little we know about the invisible workings of this big-shed economy. The late architectural critic Martin Pawley called these buildings "terminal architecture", meaning that they were hubs for the unseen networks that sustain and control our daily lives. Giving nothing away on the outside, big sheds just look like dumping grounds for goods, but they are far more dynamic than that: goods move at such a rate that they can arrive and leave within the space of a few hours. In the new internet-shopping warehouses, such as the Amazon shed near Junction 13 of the M1, hundreds of "pickers" run around mountains of Harry Potter books, Nintendo games and Duffy CDs, guided to their destinations by hand-held navigational systems within minutes of orders being placed online. The big shed is designed to get stuff on the road as quickly as possible.

So why is the megashed suddenly on the political agenda? Since the mid-1990s, the development of out-of-town shopping malls and retail parks has been more tightly controlled. But central government and regional assemblies have carried on giving free rein to the megasheds, because they see them as essential to support the boom in internet shopping and the ever-growing number of imports. Faced with rising land prices, the big shed is invading other areas of the country. One of the great beneficiaries has been UK Coal, because much of the land that it bought cheaply when British Coal was privatised in 1994 turns out to be conveniently located between the M1 and A1, with good connections to the newly important north-eastern ports. Some of the critical pits in the 1984-85 miners' strike - most poignantly, Rossington colliery, near Doncaster, nicknamed "Red Rosso" after its diehard support for the NUM - are being turned into distribution parks.

The supermarkets are now also expanding the megasheds into the regions, because they have so many stores that a single distribution centre in the Midlands is no good to them. Some of the newspaper reports about Tesco's Andover megashed suggested that it would be one of the biggest buildings in Europe. In fact, it is nowhere near as big as Heathrow's Terminal Five, and at 915,000 square feet will be a fairly standard-sized megashed. But since that is bigger than the footprint of the Millennium Dome, it is quite big enough. So omnipresent are the big sheds becoming that a state-sponsored quango called Community Resilience UK has plans, in the event of a natural disaster or major terrorist attack, to requisition them as emergency mass mortuaries.

Antony Gormley, one of the few people to find aesthetic interest in the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, says that mega sheds are "as much a part of our history as the rural barn". As works of architecture, they are more cutting-edge than any giant Gherkin. Built quickly from prefab materials, big sheds are as impermanent and recyclable as garden sheds - the steel walls and roofs can be melted down for scrap, the concrete floors broken up and used as hardcore for roads. Some are built by "clad racking", which means simply plonking all the equipment on site and covering it with a plastic membrane, instead of walls. If only our houses could be built so cheaply and innovatively.

Yet big sheds also encapsulate the strange ethereality of the modern economy, the way it controls our lives while we have only the dimmest awareness of its workings. The recent banking crises, or the chaos at Terminal Five, do not seem to have shaken the baffling political consensus that the private sector is a paradigm of competence and efficiency - even though anyone who has ever rung a call centre, or waited in for something to be delivered, will know that the so-called "service" economy is more than capable of surly incompetence. But the big-shed universe is super-efficient at all the stuff that happens before the pesky customers get in the way: finding warehouse locations, cutting margins, working out how much the shipping will cost in pounds per cubic metre.

Britain is the world leader at moving stuff around. As the rest of us know so little about it, this logistics economy could largely ignore all the voguish talk about local sourcing and carbon footprints, and get on with what it does best: searching for limitless economies of scale. Until now, perhaps, when the megasheds are becoming so big that we are noticing them at last.

"Queuing for Beginners" by Joe Moran is published by Profile Books (£8.99)