‘Pandrexit’ – a golden opportunity?

By Anthony Hughes

With all that is going on in the world at the moment, the autumn weather settling in with a vengeance, the introduction of a new lockdown and reports of a ‘W’ shaped-recession, it is hard not feel a little gloomy. In the UK, our own particular brand of perfect storm, ‘Pandemic + Brexit’ (I like ‘Pandrexit’) continues to rumble ever closer and is going to create some tricky sailing conditions for the foreseeable future. During lockdown 1.0, much was being made of how much the pandemic had offered the environment a breather and the rest of us time to reset and think about how we live our lives. Moreover, for the optimists, it was a golden opportunity to throw out some of the old ways that weren’t working and usher in a bold new era that focuses on people and the environment and part of me still clings to this idea. 

If like me and you live in the capital, the only people who have visibly taken that on board in any measure seem to be the city planners who have seized the moment and dug up all the roads, presumably to turn London into one big cycle lane. Aside from this, I see little evidence of real change in thinking anywhere else. Everyone just seems to be waiting for things to get back to normal. The problem is, I think ‘normal’ is gone forever. Even if there is a working vaccine, I doubt it will be the magic pill everyone is expecting it to be – but maybe that is just the autumn blues talking. 

I think what we need to do is to accept the situation and change our mindset. I know I sound a bit like one of those cheesy self-help books but what if Pandemic + Brexit is actually an opportunity? I believe the combination of the two situations have created some unique conditions that could be turned into opportunities to thrive in the long term (socially, economically and ecologically) if we point ourselves in the right direction. To explain what I mean – here is a starter for ten…

Pandemic 

The pandemic has led to a massive shift to working from home, which has meant that large office complexes and city centres are sitting empty or underused, creating what I believe is called the ‘polo mint effect’. This is where inner cities are becoming ghost towns as businesses and services move out to where people live and now work. Furthermore, the already dying high streets are being killed off at an alarming rate as people turn to home delivery. Landlords and developers must be getting more nervous by the minute. 

Brexit 

An area that will be heavily affected by Brexit is farming. We have been hearing reports of crops being left on fields because there is no one to pick them anymore. Much of the fresh produce we have become so accustomed to in our supermarkets comes from Europe. All this food is going to become a lot more expensive, especially if we end up with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Instead of relying on cheap imported labour and subsidies to save our farming industry we should be trying to create higher value farming jobs and boosting the productivity and competitiveness of our farming operations. 

Pandemic + Brexit 

This alignment of situations actually creates an opportunity – why not turn some of the unused glittering towers of Canary Warf and the City of London, or any of the country’s most ailing high streets and underused office developments into the world’s biggest and most spectacular vertical urban farms? 

At this point, you are probably thinking what has this guy been smoking, but think about it for a minute. We have ended up in a situation where we have large swathes of expensive inner city real estate, infrastructure and office parks that are sitting empty (for the foreseeable future); we need to produce a lot more food, more competitively; we need to create high value, green jobs to rescue our broken economy; we have a rising number of unemployed; and, dare I say it, we still need to rescue the environment from imminent collapse. 

The UK is already a global leader R&D and tech why not build on that strong foundation and transform ourselves into a global leader in next generation food production. Urban farming is not a new concept, vertical farming technology has come a long way in recent years and the benefits are numerous. It is incredibly water efficient, it yields year round harvests, there are less miles from soil to consumer, it creates high value jobs, it’s not weather dependent, there is no need for pesticides, its energy efficient, the list goes on and on. The kicker is that the more next-gen farming capacity we build in inner cities, the more we could reclaim hundreds of thousands of acres of land outside of cities for rewilding, reintroducing biodiversity and building a truly carbon neutral economy. What is more, landlords will stay afloat and our inner cities won’t be left to decay. We would be helping to build a viable long terms economic and ecological future for our children too.  

Ok ok, it’s a bit fanciful, but the point is Brexit + Pandemic needs to be viewed as an opportunity rather than a reason for despair. It’s an extraordinary situation which is going to need extraordinary solutions to get through it.