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_borderHvis man vil have meget, skal man have et alternativ

alternative photoNu hvor den Socialdemokratiske regering er blevet dannet, er det måske værd at se på, hvor meget De Radikale og Morten Østergaard har fået ud af forhandlingerne, og det er ikke meget, så vidt jeg kan se. En del klima- og udlændingeforbedringer, men det var jo også ting, som Enhedslisten krævede. Og så en forlængelse af Margrethe Vestagers ansættelse i Bryssel.

Det er naturligt nok – der var vel kun to alternative parlamentariske grundlag til den regering, der blev dannet:

  • SV: meget nem at danne, især hvis man kunne sende Løkke til EU, og den ville potentielt være meget stabil.
  • VOKRI: svær at danne, fordi regeringen ville skulle kunne støttes af både DrV og DF, og det ville være meget vanskeligt for Morten Østergaard at bakke op om, når han nu havde talt så meget om et paradigmeskift.

Så i en forhandling mellem Mette Frederiksen og Morten Østergaard er det ret oplagt, hvem der havde de bedste kort på hånden: Det havde Socialdemokraternes formand, fordi truslen om at danne regering med V var meget mere realistisk end en radikal støtte til en fortsat Løkke-regering med DF som parlamentarisk grundlag. Og ikke mindst, fordi De Radikale havde lagt så meget vægt på at sætte DF uden for indflydelse.

Det er bare sådan, det er. Problemet er nok, at Morten Østergaard efter valget opførte sig, som om han var tungen på vægtskålen og kunne bestemme alt, når han i realiteten havde valgt side og ikke realistisk kunne pege på en højrefløjsregering.

Hvis man vil have mere magt, end mandaterne tilsiger, skal man have alternativer. Præcis som i en lønforhandling – det er meget nemmere at få mere i posen, hvis man har fået et tilbud om et godt job et andet sted, end hvis man ikke har nogen alternativer (og chefen er klar over det).

Og det betyder ikke, man skal pege på sig selv som statsministerkandidat, som Uffe Elbæk gjorde det. Det er fint nok at indrømme, man ikke selv har nogen realistisk chance for at blive statsminister, men hvis man ikke kan true med at gå sammen med den anden side, er man ikke tungen på vægtskålen, og så får man altså ikke ret meget indflydelse.

Nu bliver det interessant at se, om Mette Frederiksen i lovgivningsarbejdet hovedsageligt vil benytte sig af sit parlamentariske grundlag, eller om hun til tider vil lovgive sammen med Venstre og andre partier til højre for midten. Om De Radikale vil lave aftaler uden om regeringen sammen med VOKI. Og om SF, Enhedslisten og De Radikale vil gøre livet usikkert for regeringen, hvis de ikke er tilfredse med dens resultater.

PS: Syv kvinder ud af 20 ministre er godt nok ikke mange – og bortset fra statsministerposten er de ikke så tunge, at det gør noget. Det er meget skuffende, især i en tid, hvor så mange andre lande lægger stor vægt på ligestillingen, når de danner regering.

Der er heller ikke aldersmæssigt en regering, der ligner befolkningen. Ministrenes fødselsår er 1977 ± 6 (ældste født i 1963, yngste i 1986), hvorimod Lars Løkke sidste regering var født i 1970 ± 10 (ældste født i 1947, yngste i 1983).

Det er altså ikke godt nok.

bookmark_borderCurtains and the real time difference between Scotland and Denmark

clock photoOn paper, the time difference between Scotland and Denmark is one hour, but that’s not what it feels like.

A 9–5 job is called an 8–4 job in Denmark, and schools tend to start a some point between 7.30 and 8.15 depending on the council area, rather than Scotland’s typical 9am.

So I’d say the real time difference is about 2½ hours.

I’ve also noticed that Danes use fewer and thinner curtains than most Scots. Is there a connexion here? Do Danes start the day earlier because the sun wakes them up most of the year? Do Scots sleep in because their thick curtains protect them from the sun? Or is the causality the other way round?

I have plenty of Danish childhood memories of getting up in the middle of the night and walking to school in the dark, and in Scotland you leave work after sunset for many months every year.

I’m not sure what’s best. It feels like Danes love the morning sun, and Scots hate getting up in the dark.

Perhaps we should just start the day when the sun rises throughout the year instead of using midnight as the basis.

bookmark_borderΠάντα ῥεῖ – from Scotland to Funen

bogense photo
Photo by fugzu
As an EU citizen, Brexit has always been a personal worry. I’ve never considered it particularly likely that they’d frogmarch us all out of the country on the 30th of March, but the UK Home Office would just love to extend their hostile environment to EU citizens here, making it difficult to rent or buy property, get a job or access the health service. It’s also clear that Scotland won’t gain control over the powers necessary to prevent this anytime soon.

Brexit will be disastrous in so many other ways, though. The country is already losing large numbers of companies and individuals (including lots of NHS employees), and this will cause a huge recession even if Brexit gets cancelled tomorrow. The NHS will get worse. Universities will get much more insular without access to Erasmus (the programme that allows EU students to study here and Scottish students to study abroad for free). Products in shops will get dearer, less plentiful and less interesting. Politically, Brexit and its consequences will dominate everything for at least a decade, no matter how it ends, and this will prevent the country from solving all the very real problems facing people here.

Phyllis (my wife) and I cannot see how we can keep our company afloat under these circumstances. And we worry a lot about what it’ll mean for the three wee kids (aged 9, 11 and 13). Will they get a worse education than their older siblings? Will they have to pay university fees? Will they be unable to study abroad? And if they all emigrate after graduation because the economic prospects are dire here, will we be unable to visit them abroad because we lost everything in the Brexit recession?

For a long time we hoped that Scotland would launch an independence lifeboat, but it sadly doesn’t seem to be happening soon enough.

So we decided to find a lifeboat of our own. The result is that I’m starting a new job as a senior consultant at the Danish Language Council (the organisation defining the orthography of Danish) on the 1st of April. The Council used to be based in Copenhagen, but they’re relocating on the same day to Bogense, a small town on the north coast of Funen:

It’s quite a nice area (although it’s too flat for our liking) – the schools are good, the houses are cheap, and it’s dominated by tourism. We’ll be within commuting distance of Odense (Denmark’s third city, similar in size to Aberdeen), and it’s only an hour’s drive from Billund (Legoland) Airport.

It means leaving behind the two big kids – Marcel is about to finish university and is moving to London, and Charlotte is currently finishing her first year at Glasgow University, so she wants to stay and finish her degree. Phyllis’s mum and her brother and his family are also remaining in Scotland, and it feels really strange to have to leave them all here. At least salaries are quite a bit better in Denmark than here, so we should be able to come back often. Hopefully we’ll get a house with at least one spare bedroom, because we’re also hoping to get plenty of visitors from Scotland.

Πάντα ῥεῖ (“everything flows”), as Heraclitus used to say. When I moved to Scotland, I thought it was only for a few years, but I then ended up marrying a Scottish lassie, and I then expected to spend the rest of my life here. Now things will be very different, and we can only hope we’ll be happy about this change afterwards. I know for sure I’ll miss Scotland a lot – I’ll always feel partly Scottish. It will be good to escape the Brexit madness, though.

bookmark_borderThe pound since I moved to Scotland

I always find it hard to remember the £/€ exchange rate because it’s always about stuff after the decimal point (my brain is a bit funny in that way), so I tend to prefer to keep track of the state of the Pound Sterling in terms of Danish crowns instead (the exchange rate of the latter is tied to within 2.25% of the euro through the ERM-II mechanism).

When I moved to Scotland, I could buy slightly more than 12 crowns for a pound, but it’s now been closer to 8 for a long time:

I wonder whether I would have accepted my first job in Scotland if the exchange rate had been 8 instead of 12 – a monthly salary of DKK 18k sounds a lot less attractive than DKK 27k, and I think my employer would have found it much harder to justify paying me a salary of £40,500 rather than £27k. To be honest, I probably would have ended up somewhere else instead.

bookmark_borderMull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.