bookmark_borderCounterurbanisation and the corona crisis – or why this is the right time to buy a rural property

Our house
Our house.
I started writing this blog post back in October, long before anybody had even heard of the coronavirus. I didn’t post it at the time, mainly because I thought it was going to be slow change that would take years to manifest itself, so time was going to be on my side, and I might as well spend a bit longer adding more details. I was wrong – the pandemic has accelerated a change that had probably already started but was moving at a glacial pace, and I suspect things will now start happening really fast: People will move out of the large cities, leading to a repopulation of the countryside and to huge social problems in the shrinking metropolises.

Let’s start with a bit of history: For the past decades, large cities have grown and grown in most countries (and the larger they were to start with, they more they’ve grown), and the small towns, villages and the countryside have increasingly been deserted (or turned into holiday destinations). Several factors have been involved in this process, including:

  1. It has becoming rarer to stay in a job till retirement. This means that it has to be possible to find an equivalent or better job if you’re made redundant, and that is of course much easier if you’re staying in a large city.
  2. The fact that most families now consist of two main earners means that it has to be possible for both to find a good job – again, that’s much easier in a metropolis.
  3. The long-term migration towards the cities has had self-reinforcing effects. For instance, most villages have lost many of their shops, schools and public transport links – in some cases, nothing is left. As a result, living in the countryside means driving a lot – and not just yourself, but also your children. And in return, the cities have got more and more facilities and jobs.
  4. The cheap and abundant food made available by globalisation has made it rather pointless to have the ability to grow your own food (unless it’s a hobby). In the same way, producing your own energy has not in general been done for financial reasons.
  5. Because of falling property values in the countryside, in many countries banks have become rather reluctant to finance the purchase of rural properties. On the other hand, borrowing money for an overpriced flat in a large city has been relatively easy.

This might be about to change, however. Property prices in the cities have risen to crazy levels – young families have to live in tiny flats and/or in remote suburbs.

Currently a two-acre property with a house in good condition less than half an hour’s drive from Odense (Denmark’s third city) costs less than a typical two-bedroom flat in Copenhagen.

Fast and cheap broadband even in remote locations has made it easy to work from home, and if employers allow their employees to work from home most of the time, it makes perfect sense to buy a bigger and nicer house in the countryside instead of living in a cramped flat close to the job.

For a long time, employers seemed to be resisting the change, fearing their workers wouldn’t get anything done from home, but the coronavirus changed that. Forcing so many people to work from home for several months has been an amazing social experiment, and the conclusion in many workplaces has been that most of the work actually is easier to do from home, but that it’s useful to meet up for a couple of days a week to have meetings and have a cup of coffee with your colleagues.

If that’s the pattern that will eventually prevail, it becomes very feasible to live two to three hours away from the workplace. In small countries like Denmark, such as change will suddenly make it possible to live almost anywhere (apart from a few islands); in larger countries, some areas might of course still be too remote. It all depends on how often you have to turn up at the workplace in person – if you only have to go there once or twice a year, there’s hardly anywhere on the whole planet that’d be too remote.

So what will people be looking for, apart from fibre broadband? Good home offices are of course now a necessity, preferably with sound proofing so that you can work no matter what your kids are doing. And the corona lock-down demonstrated the value of having a garden, so that you can get fresh air and exercise even if you’re confined to your own property – although that might be a one-off issue that will quickly be forgotten.

We bought a rural property on a 2 1/2-acre plot of land (heated by geothermal energy) back in September, and it made the corona lock-down much easier to cope with. It’s not even that rural – we’re less than half an hour from the centre of Odense (Denmark’s third city), and 15-20 minutes from my job in Bogense, and it’s much cheaper than a smallish flat in Copenhagen.

Even before the corona crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested we weren’t alone. But now things are accelerating – see for instance this article in The Guardian:

The destinations where London househunters have registered to search in increasing numbers since lockdown include the Sussex beach town of Worthing, Ipswich in Suffolk and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where populations are at least twice as spread out as in the capital. The biggest increase was seen by estate agencies in Aylesbury Vale, in rural Buckinghamshire, where in April 2019, only 28% of people signing up for viewings were from London. Since Covid-19, that number has risen to 44%. Its rolling fields are around 30 times less populated than the London average.

And of course, if enough people start doing this, house prices will start falling in the metropolises and start rising in the areas people are moving to. Once these trends become noticeable, the effect will start reinforcing itself, as people in the large cities rush to sell before the value of their property drops too far while trying to snap up a nice house in the new hotspots before there’s nothing left.

Some people will of course be left in the cities – the ones who can’t leave because they have a job there that requires attendance (shop workers, museum guides, bus drivers and many more), the ones can’t afford to leave, and the ones who won’t leave for personal reasons. But if the cities suddenly are filled with empty, decaying houses, boarded-up shops and transport links that get worse every year, it will potentially become a huge problem to prevent them from turning into dystopias.

Of course I might be exaggerating, but my gut feeling tells me the counterurbanisation movement will get stronger over time, not weaker.

For instance, I expect several other independent developments to strengthen the development, such as:

  1. Self-driving (autonomous) cars and drones will make it much less cumbersome to live in remote locations, because they can deliver your shopping, take your kids to football practice, or drive you home from the pub when you’re over the limit.
  2. Global warming will probably lead to a reduction in air traffic, so living near an airport will be much less useful, and living in a place you actually like will become more important. (So people might not only move towards less densely populated places, but also towards places with a nice climate – for instance from north to south within the EU.)
  3. Farming robots will make it possible for everybody to grow their own food, with very little effort. Most people like the idea of having fresh vegetables and fruit in their garden but can’t be bothered with the practicalities. Once robots take over the chores, most people will want to do this – if they have enough space. It’s just so much easier to be self-sufficient if you have a few acres of land than if you live in a tiny flat.

This means that the ideal property should tick the following boxes:

  1. Not too far from workplaces (perhaps two to three hours from major employers, but time will tell)
  2. Good connectivity (5G, or 4G mobile network and fibre broadband, for instance)
  3. Decent road connexions (that self-driving cars will be able to navigate).
  4. Not threatened by an increase in sea levels
  5. Plenty of land to be self-sufficient.
  6. If it also is beautiful and has a pleasant climate, even better.
Your home office could have a view like this.

In the long term, I tend to believe Paul Mason was right in his book Post-Capitalism, and that automation (AI + robots) will eventually erode the value of labour, leaving only land (and other physical resources) as valuable.

See for instance my review of the use of the Labour Theory of Value in Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism:

We might thus be heading for a situation where value derives from land (for living on, growing food on and extracting materials from) and energy (which ultimately derives from land, too). So an app or a book will be practically free, whereas a house, a gold ring or a trip to Barbados will still cost real money.

[…] [W]e’re therefore not heading for a future without money. Even if you tried, you’d get USSR-style black markets and corruption in order to get the most attractive house or the newest smartphone before everybody else.

I guess the real question is where people will get money from in the first instance if their labour isn’t needed. Landowners will be rich, but apart from them only people doing important work (such as building and maintaining robots) will be necessary. The rest can then to some extent make money by providing personal services to the landowners and robot builders and to each other, but it doesn’t sound like a very prosperous future to me.

If I’m right, people will never move back into the cities, and the people left there will struggle more and more, because they’ll have to buy food, energy, clothes and other things that people in the countryside will be able to produce themselves. This is pure speculation, of course, but if I’m right, the sooner you swap your inner-city flat for a large rural property, the better – the early movers always make a better deal that the ones catching up.

bookmark_borderThe megacities are doomed!

Post Apocalypse
Post Apocalypse.
At the moment, the megacities of the World (such as London, New York, Paris and Tokyo) seem to be unstoppable. They sook up more and more economic activity, and it’s getting harder and harder to have a decent career unless you live in one of them. House prices keep increasing inside them, while they might very well be falling elsewhere in their host country.

However, as a long-term investment I wouldn’t touch metropolitan property with a bargepole, because I think these great cities are going to collapse within the next few decades, and here’s why:

Young people don’t get attracted to the huge cities because life there is good – property prices are so high in them that newcomers will have to pay a fortune for a room in a shared flat with an hour-long commute.

The reason young people flock to the cities is because that’s where the jobs are (and especially because you’ll be able to find a new job within your field every three years or so, which means you won’t suddenly find yourself in a employment cul-de-sac).

As soon as somebody as somebody invents a piece of workplace collaboration software that companies are willing to use for their in-house staff, everything will change.

Suddenly you can apply for a job in London, New York or Melbourne while living in Orkney. And when you move on, your next job can be in Paris, San Francisco or Ruhrstadt while you remain in Orkney.

(This is increasingly already the case for small companies and freelancers – I’ve undertaken work for people living in Hamilton (New Zealand), Edmonton (Canada) and Birsay (Orkney) without ever going there. It’s today normally only the admin staff that have to be in the office.)

Once people’s normal place of work is their home (or a neighbourhood office if they prefer to leave home for work), companies don’t need huge offices in expensive locations. They can rent a hotel or a conference venue if they want to arrange a yearly get-together for their staff, or for having meetings with clients, and all they need is a small registered head office.

The companies will save an enormous amount of money by getting rid of their city-centre offices (more than enough to make up for a potential fall in productivity by letting people work from home), as will the staff by being able to live in much cheaper locations.

However, modern cities rely on the synergies of having a lot of people in one place. As soon as some companies and employees move out, the advantage of being in the city will decrease for the ones that remain. Why move to a city if you can get the same job without moving? Why pay for an expensive office if you can employ the same people by paying for a much cheaper piece of software instead?

Once a few people and companies start moving, prices will start falling. That will make the property investors move out, too, which will make prices fall even faster — at the moment, investing in property in central London is an easy way to make a profit if you have enough money to invest — and this will presumably continue until house prices reflect the attractiveness of living in that location – and for large parts of modern cities that’s not a lot. Of course people people will still pay good money to live in a luxurious penthouse flat overlooking the Thames or the Seine, but how attractive is it really to live in a concrete high-rise an hour away from the city centre?

So if I had a lot of money to invest, I wouldn’t touch unattractive residential areas on the outskirts of cities with a bargepole, but I’d try to snap up idyllic houses with good internet connections within a reasonable distance from a railway station and an airport.

I also think governments should be careful not to invest too much money on prestige infrastructure projects in their capitals (Crossrail and HS2 spring to mind in the UK) and instead invest in projects such as fast Internet connections in rural areas (such as what the SNP is promising in their manifesto).

bookmark_borderDividing England along the Severn-Wash line

Isoglosses for 'last', 'cross' and 'sun'
Isoglosses for ‘last’, ‘cross’ and ‘sun’. Based on this image by NordNordWest modified by User:Xhandler, with isoglosses from An Atlas of English Dialects
.

In the past I’ve been writing about ways to split up England for the purpose of making federalism work in the UK (see this and this and this).

For some bizarre reason one split I never suggested in these blog posts was in many ways the most obvious one.

As a linguist, I’ve been aware for years that English dialects split into two main groups: Southern English south of a line roughly from the Severn to the Wash, and Northern English north of this line. (Scottish dialects are a completely different story.) Three of the most important isoglosses are shown on the map on the right.

However, this line turns up in lots of other contexts, e.g.:

  • Economics: “The current government’s attempts to bridge the north-south divide look doomed to failure. All but one of the 20 worst districts for hidden unemployment lie north of a line from the Severn to the Wash […]”
  • Politics: “South of a line drawn from the Wash to the Severn estuary, Labour has just 10 seats outside of London.”
  • Geology: “The line links the mouth of the River Tees between Redcar and Hartlepool in the north east of England with the mouth of the River Exe in Devon, the south west. The lowlands (sedimentary rocks) are predominant to the east of the line and higher land (igneous and metamorphic rocks) dominates to the west. As well as geology, those areas to the north and west of the line are generally wetter in climate than those to the east and south. Similar lines are commonly drawn, for similar purposes, between the Severn Estuary and the Wash, and between the Severn and the mouth of the River Trent.”
  • Ornithology: “[The nightingale is] a secretive bird which likes nothing better than hiding in the middle of an impenetrable bush or thicket. In the UK they breed mostly south of the Severn-Wash line […]”
  • Medicine: “Although the 1916 and 1917 waves of meningitis in the civil population were less intense than the primary wave of 1915 […], the underlying pattern of heightened disease activity in counties to the south of the Severn-Wash line persisted.”

I’m sure there are many more examples, but these should suffice to show that the Severn-Wash line is the most obvious border. North England and South England would be different in so many ways that they would quickly develop separate identities.

Obviously I don’t think England will ever be divided, but the consequence is that an undivided England will always dominate the UK to such a great extent that Scottish independence becomes a necessity.

bookmark_borderWhat the Scottish Highlands could have been like

Scotland - Grampian Highlands
Scotland – Grampian Highlands, a photo by Humpalumpa on Flickr.
Iain Macwhirter recently wrote an interesting blog posting comparing the Scottish Highlands with the French Pyrenees.

He’s bemoaning how the latter is still populated and full of affordable housing. As he ways, “[o]ne of the reasons I love the Pyrenees is that it’s what I imagine the Highlands of Scotland would have been like had the people not been cleared from the land to make way for sheep and deer.”

This sentiment reminded me of a song by Màiri Mhór nan Oran that we learnt when I attended the Gaelic summer school at the University of Edinburgh a few years before I moved to Scotland. I’ve forgotten the exact words, but I still remember her despair at seeing perfectly viable farms with replaced with sheep.

I don’t know how realistic it would be to reverse the process, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The Central Belt is overcrowded, and it would be great if people started moving back to the Highlands.

bookmark_borderThe opposite side of the Earth

A map showing what's on the exact opposite side of the planet
A map showing what’s on the exact opposite side of the planet

I recently stumbled upon a collection of odd maps.

Many of them are rather US-centric, but a few of them are really interesting, such as the one on the right which shows what’s on the exact opposite side of the planet.

I also like this one which shows the distribution of the different types of electrical plugs.

bookmark_borderSwitzerland-upon-Thames



Swiss Tree
Originally uploaded by Enro

The front page of today’s Economist is dedicated to a story about what would happen if Britain left the EU.

I can easily understand the attraction for people and businesses in Greater London (a.k.a. South-East England): London is to a large extent the capital of the world, attracting headquarters, finance and court battles from a lot of global companies and billionaires. To some extent London is to the world what Switzerland is to Europe.

The kind of policies that would suit London would include almost unlimited immigration (because the high cost of living would ensure that most people would only want to go there for a decade or so), low corporation tax (because it’s better to get 1% tax from all global companies that to get 30% from a select few), privatised health care and universities (because of the number of temporary immigrants and because of the generally high salaries in London), and leaving the EU and getting free-trade agreements with the rest of the world (a position called “Freeport Ho!” in Going South).

On the other hand, the ideal policies for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and non-London England are in general quite different. In general, social-democratic policies (such as though pursued by the SNP in Scotland) would probably be quite popular, and it would make good sense to be a full part of the European Union.

The distance between the needs of London and the rest is so great that it gets incredibly hard to govern all of the UK efficiently.

As I wrote in a recent blog post, “[t]he current state of affairs is a bit like if the Switzerland and France had formed a union at some point and had moved the capital, the company headquarters, the politicians and the media companies to Zürich, with the result that both parts of the union were being run based on what was best for Zürich. I doubt most of France would have flourished in such a scenario.”

Unfortunately, very few people seem to be interested in independence for London (although Kelvin MacKenzie is getting close). Fortunately, we have the option of making Scotland independent in two years’ time, which at least solves the problem up here.

bookmark_borderThe Swiss capital of the European country

The political class in Westminster tend to look at the UK from a London perspective, and to listen especially to the needs of the City of London (i.e., the big financial institutions). Most of the British media exist in the same bubble, which is why so many topics are being discussed as if everybody in the country was making a very comfortable living working in a multinational bank in London.

This became abundantly clear again yesterday, when a majority in Westminster voted to force the UK government to demand an EU budget cut, which is surely another small step towards the Brexit. In other news yesterday, it was noted that the regional divide is growing within England, and Scotland was fully preoccupied with the question of Scottish membership of the EU.

The problem is that London is to a large extent a global Switzerland, and as such EU membership isn’t necessarily such a good idea — a Swiss solution vis-à-vis the EU and lots of bilateral free-trade agreements would probably suit London best.

On the other hand, the rest of the UK is probably not that different from most of Europe, and although we can save Scotland through Scottish independence, I do fear for the prospects of the north of England if London takes the (r)UK out of the EU.

I often think that independence for Greater London would solve even more problems than Scottish independence, but alas it’s not on offer.

The current state of affairs is a bit like if the Switzerland and France had formed a union at some point and had moved the capital, the company headquarters, the politicians and the media companies to Zürich, with the result that both parts of the union were being run based on what was best for Zürich. I doubt most of France would have flourished in such a scenario.