It’s years since I visited the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire, but driving through it last week I was struck by how the once-ubiquitous abbreviation NCB (National Coal Board), which disappeared from road signs decades ago, has been replaced by another one, RSPB, which stands for Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The area’s collieries were some of the most productive in Yorkshire, not least the giant Manvers complex and nearby Wath Main. Mining communities took huge pride in their industry but accepted that it meant living among numerous slag heaps. When covered in snow locals called them the Barnsley Alps.
Now the pits are all gone and the slag heaps have been levelled. A valley that used to have one of the greatest concentrations of coal mines in the UK now has the biggest cluster of bird reserves. With names like RSPB Old Moor, RSPB Wombwell Ings, RSPB Gypsy Marsh and RSPB Adwick Washland they replaced the once famous collieries.
This reshaping of the landscape was unimaginable a couple of decades ago, and it strikes me that the way coronavirus is transforming our lives today could well have such revolutionary consequences for another landscape. This time, the changes may be to the centre of cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield.
Another abbreviation – WFH (working from home) – describes the concept that’s creating a new way of life for millions. The Office for National Statistics says 30 per cent of UK white collar workers were WFHers at the height of lockdown, and since then a poll has found that 91 per cent of them wish to remain in their home offices.
The computer each one uses in their daily lives requires just decent broadband for productivity. Video-conferencing apps like Zoom and Google Meet make face-to-face contact unnecessary, aided by virtual whiteboard apps like Webex. This raises the prospect that those buildings full of desks, photocopiers and water coolers, in which Ricky Gervais set his hit TV comedy The Office, may become as obsolete as the pitheads of the Dearne Valley.
The Financial Times quotes the head of Barclays bank Jes Staley as saying: “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” A recent survey by big business consultants PwC found that a quarter of companies were thinking about cutting back on office space. The global financial services firm UBS is already considering whether it should move out of expensive city-centre office blocks.
Clearly, the whole WFH phenomenon has persuaded large employers that their staff didn’t regard working from home as Netflix leave and are managing to put in a fair day’s work from the kitchen table or desk in the spare room.
All this is having negative consequences for city centre businesses that rely on footfall from office workers. By contrast, I can see it has been great for my local coffee shops on the outskirts of Leeds where on weekdays it’s now normal to see people hunched over laptops.
As “for rent” signs proliferate in city centres it would be obscene if below those vacant office blocks there continue to be rough sleepers. And with homelessness predicted to increase substantially because of coronavirus job losses and the end of the current evictions freeze, there will be no excuse for people not having a roof over their heads.
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