Why a 2019 Conservative manifesto promise explains today’s confusion over homeworking

This incarnation of the Tory party struggles when it has to confront the British people with hard truths, such as the decline of the high street. 

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Why is the government’s messaging on whether people should return to work so confused? On the one hand, ministers encourage people to return to working in offices – on the other, they point towards advice that people should stay at home. The incoherence goes back to one of the sillier themes in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto and programme: their commitment to “save high streets”.

The biggest problem with most policies designed to “save the high streets” is that they share the same reluctance to answer the following question: save them from who? The answer, it turns out is, “the collective spending preferences of the people who live near them”. The biggest single killer of high streets is the rise of e-commerce: more people using Amazon and other online delivery services, and as a result fewer people buying goods from bricks-and-mortar outlets.

So if you want to “save” high streets, you either have to make people pay a bit more for the new service they are spending money on, or actively prohibit them from doing so, both of which are liable to upset people.

You can – and in my view should – regulate pay and conditions for couriers and people who work in warehouses better, which might close the financial gap between online and physical shopping. But in practice, I think economies of scale means that even if everyone involved in an online transaction is well paid and treated, internet shopping will still have the edge over traditional retail. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still not going to close the convenience gap: that ordering goods and services online is simply easier and quicker for the customer than the alternative in most circumstances.

Or you can go further and actively prohibit people from buying certain goods and services online. I don’t think you should do this, quite frankly, and think a government that did would struggle to maintain political consent, not only for the ban but for its continued presence in office. 

But the problem with both of these levers is that they are likely to upset people and that the same people voting for a party to “save the high street” are the ones who are killing it.

The other policy you can introduce, if you want to save the high street, is to look at what is happening in the parts of the country in which high streets have been able to transform into thriving spaces dominated by pubs, bars, restaurants and other leisure outlets, sometimes even with twee names revealing their previous function – “The Old Book Store”, “The Carpenter’s Shed”, though unsurprisingly to my knowledge no restaurant has yet to describe itself  honestly as “the former public toilet block”.

But again, the difficulty is that the policy changes that would allow you to turn a dying high street into one that is transforming tend to upset people in the short term. Problems include making it easier to build and renovate existing premises, which is annoying for nearby neighbours, and promoting better public transport and fewer cars, which people tend to hate up until the better public transport arrives, at which point they don’t thank you for it. (One of the interesting paradoxes of British transport policy is that survey after survey shows that the unhappiest category of commuters are those who travel by car, but they are also the most vocally angry whenever someone suggests it might be made more difficult for them to do so.)

What all these policy levers have in common is that they require you to admit and accept that the fate of the high streets is the result, yes, of decisions influenced by successive governments, but also the impulses and desires of the UK’s people as a whole.

And the same is true of the coronavirus recession. Yes, the struggles of the many businesses who have evolved to service the needs of office workers are in part because the government legally prohibited many activities. But they are, as the continued year-on-year fall-off in restaurant and bar reservations both before and after the formal prohibition shows, because people have made a conscious decision to avoid “high-risk” activities and because businesses had already begun to shift to homeworking.

This is where the focus on the deadly consequences of Covid-19 can be a bit of a red herring. Let’s imagine for a moment that instead of a new coronavirus we were dealing with a new, highly transmissible but non-fatal norovirus, which thanks to modern-day diarrhoea treatments could be managed with over-the-counter drugs but still caused the afflicted to be confined to their nearest bathroom for a fortnight at a time. If you’re a business, your bottom line is still better served by avoiding the excessive amounts of sick days, which would limit the effectiveness of your business, by pivoting to homeworking.

And if you discover, having done so, that you can maintain your firm’s productivity while avoiding the costs of leasing, heating and servicing one office block in a central location – why would you return?

As it happens, I think there are a number of soft and unmeasurable benefits to office working – I think there are soft and immeasurable benefits to buying books, DVDs and indeed ingredients from bricks-and-mortar shops. But after a certain point one has to accept that your own beliefs about soft and immeasurable benefits tend to be crowded out by the hard fact of economic reality – or you have to implement unpopular and controversial policies to turn those tides back.

The difficulty this government has is its overall approach is based on telling people what they want to hear: vote Tory and you won’t have to hear about Brexit any more! More money for public services, but your taxes stay the same and debt will fall! And any policy challenge when the government’s aims are at odds with public preferences will always result in incoherence.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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