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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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