Coronavirus is having an astonishing impact on how we live our lives, and is likely to be around for a long time. So what should policy makers do, so that we can Build Back Better?
One big area to address is “Working From Home”. A recent big poll for the AA found that most respondents are currently working from home and 22% of drivers expect to drive less after lockdown ends. This will have a major beneficial impact on our carbon emissions, air pollution and congestion.
Having to work suddenly from home has been tough for some, but is likely to lead to a permanent shift in working patterns, as employers and employees get tempted by the potential advantages. I think this will be particularly important for the high growth technical companies and professional services businesses that are the backbone of economic growth in our region.
To support this transformation, we need to urgently shift investment from building roads to upgrading our IT infrastructure. Shockingly, outside our main cities, Cambridgeshire’s mobile coverage for voice and data (2G and 4G services) is worse than the England average. We also need to improve access to high speed broadband. Although superfast optical fibre broadband is being rolled out by CityFibre in Cambridge, currently many people in Greater Cambridge can’t even use video to participate in online group meetings. I’m reliably informed by one of Cambridge’s IT boffins, that would only cost around £10B to provide optical fibre broadband to every home in the whole UK. This compares to the £1.5B that is being spent on the A14 improvement scheme to move some traffic queues 21 miles further along.
The lockdown has also shown that we can’t expect people to work from home all day in cramped overcrowded rabbit hutches. The average Cambridge home is now just 36m2 per resident, so it’s not surprising that some people are going stir crazy.
There has been a long hard battle to get minimum space standards for new homes adopted, and these are now in national law, but we need our local planners to ensure developers don’t wriggle out of their obligations. This must be underpinned by a strong national ”Future Homes Standard” to ensure that all new homes cost little to heat, stay cool in summer and provide a quiet place to work.
Finally, there is still the massive injustice of the Bedroom Tax. With the financial crisis forcing many of the self employed and newly redundant to claim Universal Credit while working from home, it’s cruel and unfair that they will effectively be fined up to £25/week if they are deemed to have a spare room in which to work