The anxiety about robots stealing jobs is overblown. Policymakers need to focus on more immediate threats

Uhoh: Pepper, the Japanese android. Image: Getty.

“The robots are coming to take our jobs”, the Evening Standard told Londoners in December 2016. In case that didn’t depress their readers enough, the article went on to spell out the coming doom: “The sheer pace of change in computational power and grinding efficiencies of automation will alter or eliminate many of our jobs, far faster than we anticipate.”

And then, to ensure the anxiety was sufficiently widespread, they reminded their middle-class readers that “many of the relatively fortunate in the professional class in London will face upheavals too”.

Anxiety about the impact of robots on the world of work has been a hot topic across Western countries for several years. You couldn’t move at Davos last year without seeing grown men (it’s always men) with their heads in their hands predicting the end of work. Bill Gates is so worried that he has called for a robots tax.

But is the rise of the robots really what the mayor and other London policymakers should be spending their time thinking about? Here are three reasons why we might want to dial down the robot angst and focus our anxiety elsewhere.

First, if the robots are taking all our jobs, they’re doing a really bad job of it. Far from falling, the proportion of Londoners in work has risen fast in recent years, with the London employment rate now three percentage points higher than it was on the eve of the financial crisis. London’s employment rate currently stands at a record high of almost 74 per cent, significantly higher than all other major UK cities bar Bristol.

Second, London is less at risk of automation abolishing work than most parts of the UK. That’s because of the kind of work that actually gets done within the M25. Manufacturing jobs are famously prone to being replaced by robots because of the repetitive and physical nature of much of the work: think of a modern car factory filled with robot arms, compared to the world of Henry Ford. But manufacturing jobs make up a much smaller share of the work done in London than across Great Britain as a whole. London has instead a far greater share of professional and finance jobs, which are much less susceptible (though not totally immune) to being automated.

Third, robot scares are far from new. Back in the 1980s, the headlines were focused on a new-fangled thing, the computer chip, that was threatening to destroy work. “Robots to take over the world” was another Evening Standard headline. That was printed on 11 September 1995, and they’ve not done it yet.


None of this means that there are no serious public policy implications of automation. Industries that are affected can see big changes in employment levels – especially where the related forces of globalisation and automation come together, as they have for clothes manufacturing in the UK. The nature of specific jobs can also change, even if the work is still there. For example, there are questions about the extent to which technology is used to control workers.

But the big picture is that most of the current bout of robot anxiety over the London economy is overdone. That matters – not just because the anxiety is misplaced, but because it distracts London’s policymakers from the real issues that need addressing.

For example, London has seen an increase in the number of people engaged in various forms of precarious work in recent years. There are now 120,000 people on zero-hours contracts in London, the second-highest number in any region (though the proportion of Londoners on a zero-hours contract is similar to the UK average). Many of these workers will be putting in regular hours, but without the guarantees that would help them plan.

London has also seen a much bigger pay squeeze than the UK average since the financial crisis – something that should be at the top of the list of policymakers’ concerns. Pay is down a shocking 13 per cent in London since 2009, compared to less than 7 per cent across the UK. Indeed, average weekly earnings have not increased at all in London between 2011 and 2016, whereas house prices are up by 60 per cent and rents up by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the main national policy to raise wages for low earners, the National Living Wage, will have less impact in London than elsewhere.

For policymakers wanting to ensure that London’s labour market remains a success in the years ahead, worrying about the right things is crucial. Yes, technology brings challenges, as always – but let’s focus on the very real problems of stagnant pay and precarious work, rather than the science fiction of robots taking all our jobs.

Torsten Bell is director of the Resolution Foundation.

This article is an extract from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London, supported by Capital & Counties Properties. The full set of essays can be found here

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.