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)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times