How shipping containers changed the world – and your day-to-day life

We know this is all very exciting, but try to contain yourself, lads. (I'm so sorry.) Image: Getty.

Shipping containers, it almost goes without saying, do not make good conversation starters. Bring them up at parties and you’ll likely receive a few glazed looks before someone with better social skills awkwardly tries to change the subject.

My advice would be to keep the container chit-chat to yourself, while quietly relishing the fact that most of the things in the room would have likely spent part of their life in one. The European beer and olives, the South American wine and out of season fruit, you name it, it all reached this country in a shipping container.

In essence they are large steel boxes, designed with enough strength to be filled with heavy goods and lugged around by massive cranes. But the significance of containers lies in what they facilitate: international trade. By making this significantly easier, they've aided globalisation and changed our day to day lives.

It was post-World War Two when shipping containers really started to dominate trade. Thanks to recommendations issued in the late 1960s by the International Organisation for Standardisation, a Chinese container full of clothes can be lifted straight from a ship onto an American train, from which it can be transported to the shopping malls of Midwest.

Previously the norm was a system known as break bulk cargo, in which each item was separately loaded onto a cargo ship. It was a labour intensive process that required lengthy packing and then unpacking in ports, during which time theft and damage were more likely.


Once the use of containers had become widespread, known as the process of containerisation, the international supply chain was much smoother, and foreign goods flooded our markets. As container technology developed allowing for refrigeration, fresh goods could be taken anywhere in the world. We can now eat Indian mangos, Caribbean bananas, and Brazilian steak all year round.

The global supply chain also developed, as ease of transport meant that companies could build components of the final product in completely different countries. As economists Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase argue about modern-day trading, “it is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless”. And it is us lucky consumers who end up benefiting from far cheaper products.

But where consumers reaped the benefit, workers suffered.

As the old break bulk cargo methods were superseded by shipping containers, which could be managed with far less labour, unemployment in dock cities skyrocketed.

Liverpool was a prime example of this, as not only did the dockland jobs disappear, but the companies the docks served moved abroad. The city was sent into a spiral of decline, with its population shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The seismic change of containerisation made its mark elsewhere across the nation as well, being the death-knell for a number of inland ports. Having weathered over a thousand years of history and everything the Luftwaffe could throw at it, it was containerisation that finished off London as a great port city. The new method required new ships, which were too large to navigate upriver to the capital. Such was also the case in Manchester and Gloucester. 

For good and ill, containers are everywhere. They’re even sneaking into the housing market. In trendy parts of towns, containers are becoming ultra-fashionable work spaces for start-ups, bars, restaurants, and shops alike. As the UK’s ongoing housing crisis deepens, shipping container “towns” are even popping up for homeless people to live in.

It really can’t be overstated how much these fairly unassuming metal boxes have changed the world. They gave globalisation a triple espresso and in doing so changed everything from macroeconomics to what you eat for breakfast. From the clothes on your back to the fabric of our cities. Still not the topic of great conversations though.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.