The rise of the robots: Here are four big disruptions facing London’s economy

Coming soon to a coffee shop near you. Image: Getty.

Disruption is nothing new for London. In the past 70 years, the city has transformed from a declining imperial capital to one of a handful of “global cities”. And during this time London’s economy has proved itself to be astonishingly resilient – to financial booms and crashes, to global economic shifts, to terrorism and instability.

But times are changing. Technology is enabling more and more complex non-routine jobs to be automated, and Brexit and pay pressures could accelerate its adoption, shaking up London’s labour market. 

In fact, there are four big changes set to hit London’s workers in the coming years.

1. Lower and medium skilled jobs could be automated

Around a third of London’s jobs have high potential for automation in the next 20 years. This could have an impact on around a million low- and medium- skilled jobs in the capital, from taxi drivers to warehouse workers, shop assistants to secretaries.

And just as the secretarial and administrative occupations that once looked like solid middle-class employment 50 years ago rapidly disappear, bookkeeping and accountancy jobs may be soon to follow them.

2. Brexit could act as a catalyst for increasing the speed of automation

But automation is not automatic.  Employers need to make the decision to invest in software and machinery rather than wages.

Brexit could tip the balance and make the business case stack up. Around 15 per cent of London’s workforce are overseas EU/EEA citizens, and some of the industries which are more susceptible to automation in London – restaurants, hotels, construction – are particularly dependent on EU workers. Net migration has fallen since the referendum in 2016: should immigration policies tighten post-Brexit, the capital could see labour shortages in key areas of its workforce.

Staff shortages may begin to bite before automation is technically and commercially feasible. While this shortfall would most likely lead to wage inflation, and a welcome relief for low-paid workers, it might at the same time strengthen the case for and accelerate automation.


3. As jobs disappear, new jobs will be created

At the same time, demand for jobs involving social and creative intelligence – such as personal fitness instructors, care workers and designers – may grow. Centre for London’s analysis indicates that new jobs are most likely to be created in finance and insurance, and information and communication, which are specialisms for the capital, as well as public services and manufacturing.

But while automation may create new jobs, there is a difference in scale from their industrial era predecessors. Digital businesses need fewer employees to generate a large turnover than traditional industry often required.

Take this stark comparison. In 1962, when their annual sales surpassed $1bn, Kodak Eastman employed 75,000 people in production sites across the world. When Facebook passed $8bn, today’s equivalent of this threshold, it employed only around 6,300 people.

We may need to start thinking about how London and the UK manage to enhance social inclusion, at a time when fewer people are in full-time employment.

4. Londoners won’t enter ‘jobs for life’ – and will need new skills to reflect this

We’re quickly seeing that jobs are no longer for life: a change that automation has deepened. At the same time, it’s said that 65 per cent of future jobs have not yet been created. Businesses are increasingly finding themselves looking for transferable skills – rooted in things like project management, problem solving and customer service – rather than specific academic or technical skills.

These four big changes will transform the way people work in London over the coming years. At the end of the day robots will always be robots. But we all need to recognise that our jobs are likely to change. This means throughout our careers, it’s likely we’re going to need to learn new skills and retrain.

Employers will need to work with government, schools and colleges to ensure that workers are equipped with the social and creative skills that the jobs of the future will demand, and to strengthen London’s human capital.

Amy Leppanen is communications officer at the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

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.