In undergraduate days at the London School of Economics forty years ago, one of the most startling discoveries was how empty were some areas of central London on evenings and weekends. After the offices had closed, places were deserted.
The trend has continued. Property prices in central London have escalated to the point where only businesses can afford to remain, meaning that when the lockdown occurred, there was a dearth of people in many areas and that the businesses that served the offices found themselves without customers.
The answer to the deserted streets proposed by the CBI is that everyone should return to their offices. The BBC report that there are “warnings of ‘ghost towns’ if staff do not return to the office.” Ostensibly. the return is encouraged to provide customers for the small businesses, few people will be persuaded that the real reason is not that some companies have invested hundred of millions in office space and do not want to be left with property that is worth less than what they paid for it.
Why should society be organised for the benefit of big corporations? Had the government taken a Thatcherite approach in recent months, it would have told companies that they must stand or fall by themselves. A Right-wing government would have followed the principles of the free market and not spent hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money propping up immensely rich companies.
If money has been accepted for social good, then it is time that companies started acting for social good.
Keeping people working at home can provide a profound social good.
Online jobs will be open to anyone, anywhere. There will be no requirement to be within commuting distance of an employer, no requirement to be able to afford to live in a particular place in order to consider applying for a particular job. House prices in cities will flatten and even decline as demand for housing in urban areas begins to fall.
Commuting will become unnecessary, trains will no longer be crowded, roads will no longer be clogged with traffic. Countless millions will be saved when there is no necessity to buy railway tickets or fill cars with fuel. Mornings and evenings without jams will improve the quality of life for everyone.
Companies allowing working from home to become a permanent arrangement will give their employees an inestimable number of hours back. How many hours are spent in journeys to and from work? Even working for a company a few miles from home probably demands that staff allow half an hour each way, an hour a day, five hours a week. Workers able to work from home will have more time for their families, more time for leisure, more time for their communities.
Money saved on travel will allow for expenditure on desirable things, it will bring more spending in local businesses, more wealth for local communities, and will reduce the income of oil companies and motor manufacturers.
And what about the danger of “ghost towns”? When the companies reduce the space they take, more space is created for people. Communities reappear. The businesses now most affected will find new customers.