Coronavirus and the Meltdown of the Construction Industry: Bloated, Socially Oppressive and Environmentally Ruinous


Part of the massive development site at Nine Elms in Vauxhall, photographed on April 16, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Just for a while there, it was bliss. The roads were almost entirely empty, the air was clean, birds could be heard singing in central London, and, most crucially, the din of huge construction sites was almost entirely silenced. Construction sites not only generate vast amounts of noise and pollution; they also choke the roads with hundreds of lorries carrying material to them, or carrying away the rubble from buildings that, in general, should have been retrofitted rather than destroyed.

This is because the environmental cost of destroying buildings is immense, and we are supposed to have woken up to the environmental implications of our activities over the last few years, because, in 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us that we only had 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change unless we started arranging to cut our carbon emissions to zero, and, in response, the activism of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion helped to persuade central governments and local governments to piously declare “climate emergencies”, and to promise to change their behaviour.

Little has been seen in terms of major changes since these “climate emergencies” were declared last year — until, that is, the coronavirus hit. Since then, global pollution levels have dropped significantly — 17% on average worldwide, by early April, compared with 2019 levels, with a 31% decline recorded in the UK.

In London, meanwhile, measurements of carbon dioxide and methane were taken from the top of the BT Tower, and analysed by scientists at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the University of Reading, who discovered a 58% drop in carbon dioxide emissions, which, as the Daily Mail noted, “closely mirrors the daily reduction of 60 per cent in traffic flow in central London which Transport for London recorded during the first five weeks of the UK’s lockdown.” The Mail added that, “For May 3, the most recent data available, CO2 emissions were down more than 70 per cent while methane emissions had been slashed by around 56 per cent.”

Sadly, however, as scientists also warned, the changes — described by the Guardian as the “sharpest drop in carbon output since records began” — will swiftly be undone without further concerted political action. As the Guardian noted, “As countries slowly get back to normal activity, over the course of the year the annual decline is likely to be only about 7%, if some restrictions to halt the virus remain in place [and] if they are lifted in mid-June the fall for the year is likely to be only 4%.”

The Guardian added that this “would still represent the biggest annual drop in emissions since the second world war, and a stark difference compared with recent trends, as emissions have been rising by about 1% annually”, but, according to Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, and the lead author of the study recording the fall in global carbon emissions, which was published in Nature, it would make “a negligible impact on the Paris agreement” goals of keeping the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to prevent the onset of catastrophic climate change.

In London, after the lockdown was declared on March 23, the majority of the capital’s heavily polluting construction sites — contributing significantly to the level of emissions — shut down, although in some cases only as a result of criticism (for one example, see the ‘Shut the Sites‘ campaign).

The result was inspiring, as the city fell silent, and the roads were almost entirely empty, because, before the coronavirus hit, London’s roads were almost permanently choked with traffic, creating homicidal levels of air pollution.

In addition, the city, as a whole, had for many years been at war, invaded by an enemy that most people didn’t even recognise: the global corporate construction industry, involved in the creation of huge numbers of new housing, office and retail developments — often through “mixed use” developments that combin all three, and that, as noted above, also contributed massively to air pollution.

These huge developments purport to be beneficial to Londoners, but the housing is way beyond the reach of ordinary hard-working Londoners, and is intended primarily for foreign investors, and the entire programme is actually only a means for parasitical transnational investment entities to take over prime inner city real estate, and to hire the bloated egos of superstar architects to design these monstrous new developments.

The results — some completed, but many others only partly completed — are now scattered across London, with particular concentrations at Nine Elms in Vauxhall and Battersea, in Canary Wharf and in the City of London, but with other examples springing up in almost every borough.

A key component in this land grab has been developments involving so-called “social housing”, whereby, in general, housing associations, which trade on their reputation as kindly providers of affordable housing for poorer workers, have hooked up with the same parasitical transnational investment entities, with the full support of central and local government, to create new housing developments.

These often involve the demolition of existing — and, crucially, structurally sound — council estates, which are replaced, primarily, with properties for private sale, along with two other scams: “affordable” housing that is much less affordable than the housing it replaces, and “shared ownership”, in which people buy a share of a property (say, 25%), and pay rent on the rest (as well as unregulated and often grossly inflated service charges), but are only secure tenants until they own the property 100%, and stand to lose everything if they fall into arrears.

After the lockdown began, and the sites that had initially stayed open were pressurised to shut, I was relieved to discover very few sites open on my daily bikes rides around London, to take photos for my ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London.’ The whole of Nine Elms went quiet, as did most of the sites at Canary Wharf and the City, although a noticeable exception was at 40 Leadenhall Street, where work clearing the ground for a proposed £1.4 billion, 900,000 sq. ft. development, nicknamed ‘Gotham City’, continued as though there was going to be some sort of demand for it when the worst of the crisis is over — which it clearly isn’t yet, despite the government’s false and cynical optimism about nudging us towards a return to “business as usual.”

Another notable exception was on the Aylesbury Estate, in Walworth, in south east London, where demolition contractors continued to demolish Chiltern House, one of the great concrete housing blocks on what was once one of Europe’s largest housing estates, an act of double vandalism — both socially, because of its intent to socially cleanse the area of its poorer inhabitants, and, environmentally, because, as the academics Mike Kane and Ron Yee have demonstrated, “The carbon cost of constructing this building was extremely high. The reinforced concrete structural frame (excluding partition walls and internal elements) is estimated to weigh in excess of 20,000 tonnes which equates to approx. 1,800 tonnes of emitted CO2 for the concrete alone. This figure is significantly increased with the remainder of the construction process and transport emissions. Demolition of Chiltern House requires in the region of 800+ HGV truck journeys through London’s congested streets, and the use of heavy demolition machinery will greatly add to the figure again. Clearly, the CO2 emission cost of reaching just the cleared site (after only 40 years of housing use) is very high, moreover, if the replacement building is of conventional construction (with only 30 year warranty), then the overall environmental cost of providing additional homes is enormous.”

Since last week, however, when Boris Johnson suggested that everyone who could return to work should do so, sites have been reopening. Most of Nine Elms is still quiet, but work has resumed on the biggest project of all, Battersea Power Station, and other sites are also starting up again.

Inside the massive and soulless Battersea Power Station development on April 16, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

This is a great shame, because, to anyone paying attention, the construction industry was already a “zombie” industry before the coronavirus hit, in part because of the cumulative damage caused by its remorseless greed, and in part because of the Tories’ obsession with fulfilling the morbidly flawed EU referendum in June 2016, whose sole purpose, in terms of Britain’s international business prospects, appears to have been to turn us from a “safe pair of hands” into an untrustworthy basket case.

The entire parasitic global construction industry assumed its current prominence after the global economic crash of 2008, which was, of course, caused by criminally greedy investment bankers who were not subsequently punished. After their sub-prime mortgage scam unravelled so spectacularly, their attention soon turned to these new developments that plague not only London but also any other city whose elected leaders can be manipulated by false promises of unparalleled wealth creation, exciting new “communities” and job opportunities — fables that some politicians actually seem to believe, while others merely embrace them cynically.

The reality, as was revealed in a Guardian exposé two years ago, entitled, ‘Ghost towers: half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell’, is that “[m]ore than half of the 1,900 ultra-luxury apartments” built in London in 2017 had “failed to sell.” Henry Pryor, a property buying agent, frankly told the Guardian that the London luxury new-build market was “already overstuffed but we’re just building more of them.” He added, “We’re going to have loads of empty and part-built posh ghost towers. They were built as gambling chips for rich overseas investors, but they are no longer interested in the London casino and have moved on.” He also pointed out that the developers had “failed to sell homes despite offering discounts, incentives and freebies – including free furniture, carpets and curtains and even cars”, because, while they offered “luxuries including concierge, gyms and spas”, fundamentally “they’re all the same” — and over-priced.

The same is true of the office blocks being built, for which no market seemed to exist even before the coronavirus hit — and which may become substantially less popular in the post-virus world. In an article on May 1, entitled ‘The end of the office? Coronavirus may change work forever’, the FT noted that, “Facing a sudden need to cut costs, chief executives have indicated in recent days that their property portfolios look like good places to start given the ease with which their companies have adapted to remote set-ups.”

Jes Staley of Barclays said, “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” Dirk van de Put of Mondelez said, “Maybe we don’t need all the offices that we currently have around the world”, while Sergio Ermotti of UBS said they were “already thinking about moving out of expensive city centre offices.”

Let’s hope that this really is the end for this zombie business of hideously overpriced housing and offices, and the relentless shops that accompany them — trying, it seems, to make sure that we can’t walk more than a few feet without spending money.

What we’re going to need when we come out of this crisis is genuinely affordable housing, at social rents (think £50 per adult per week) to support all those people who, even before the crisis hit, were clinging on by their fingernails while the frantic world that collapsed two months ago was still engaged in what we all seemed to regard as an endless party, but one in which we were not encouraged to ask too many questions about who was being exploited, and how fundamentally, terrifyingly unsustainable it all was.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the construction industry in London, in which I enthuse about the shutdown of sites, and hope that the entire bloated industry will collapse – not only because its developments are either unnecessary or overpriced, or both, but also because the entire industry is so environmentally ruinous: via the demolition of structurally sound buildings, the creation of new buildings and the massive number of lorries travelling to and from construction sites.

    My critique is also part of a wider analysis of the huge drop in carbon emissions since the lockdown began, in which massively reduced car use (and lorry use) has played a major part, although this progress will be rapidly undone without a renewed commitment to a permanent reduction in emissions as countries begin – whether prematurely or not – to try to ease their way out of lockdown.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison write:

    Has there ever been a city such as London that has been so sold out … Look at Paris look at Rome beautiful classy city’s London is constantly churning build em all up knock em all down … Build em all up knock em all down over and over … we’re all feeling alienated here … The traffic is returning to normal

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s certainly a shocker compared to Rome, which I visited eight years ago, Damien. There’s a pathological streak in certain British elite circles that is obsessed with destroying things regarded as old, apart from “heritage” sites, of course – and their own homes!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Of course Andy knock it down, knock it down apart from heritage sites which should be preserved. And their own houses which their always scrounging for help with funding for … I don’t know Andy it’s like London is a giant building site everywhere you look there’s a tatty flat being lashed up there’s some real comedy one going up in Acton right now pissey flats on scabby scraps of land right on the main road by the busstop next to the bins … My 70s childhood London has vannished my 90s London is practically gone now … It’s becoming bland corporate … DEAD … OVER

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s the scam, Damien. The crooks responsible for the 2008 crash just moved from sub-prime mortgages into these kinds of housing, office or “mixed-use” developments, all designed to screw as many people as possible.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote, in response to 2, above:

    Take a look at Seattle some time

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, there are so many cities around the world subjected to the uber-development of the last few decades, Jan. It’s really quite shocking when you step back and recognise the scale of it.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Yep, Andy – The US was in hyperdrive before Covid 19 … in Seattle – the first and only business really open is … Wait for it … Construction
    Downtown Seattle since about 2016. Most cranes in the country for 2 yrs running (2016 & 2017)

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Horrendous, Jan – and just like London. It’s easy sometimes to lose the bigger picture, because we’re so drawn into what’s happening in our particular city. I recall years ago being shocked when I saw the financial centres of capitals all round the world and realised that they all looked the same – the same priapic forests of banking towers everywhere. But now, with COVID-19 raging, and thinking about what needs to come next, you posting that photo of Seattle just makes it abundantly clear how much we’re all being screwed everywhere by developers. We can’t go back to these examples of disgraceful greed and excess and explications after the experience of the last few months when – in addition to all the deaths that should never have happened – so many millions of people have lost their livelihoods.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    In Russia, the same thing. It happens that the developer collects money from ordinary people and disappears. There is corruption everywhere

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s so true, Aleksey. We are all being screwed by international criminals, pretending to be legitimate businesses, and with the full support of our governments. Everywhere there are far to many people who are poor, the governments claim to have no money, and yet billions can be spent on building projects that no one needs. It’s time for it to end.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Some follow-up thoughts about architects and their responsibilities, in response to criticism of the article on ‘The State of London’ Facebook page:

    Architects can design clever buildings, for sure, and I don’t object to that in theory, but they’re generally in service to their paymasters- who want to maximise profits. The whole BREEAM rating for new buildings is ridiculous – an industry congratulating itself for how environmentally pure its new builds are, but refusing to take into account the horrendous environmental cost of creating those new buildings in the first place.

    There’s a whole movement in the industry calling for buildings to be retrofitted rather than destroyed where possible because of the environmental impact of demolition and disposing of the vast amounts of rubble generated, but for it to succeed the industry as a whole needs to prioritise the environmental costs of what art does, and to properly assess who its buildings are for, and who will be able to afford them when built.

    Check out this Observer article from last August by architecture critic Rowan Moore, about the need for the profession to be much more environmentally aware – ‘Where are the architects who will put the environment first?’:

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Last September, a group of architects launched Retrofit First, in response to the climate crisis. Here are the opening paragraphs of an article in the Architects’ Journal about the campaign:

    “Architects work in a problematic sector of our economy. Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26 per cent of aluminium output, 50 per cent of steel production and 25 per cent of all plastics. Because of the way it gobbles up energy and resources, the industry’s carbon emissions are sky-high. While the UK construction industry has much to be proud of, it produces no less than 35-40 per cent of the country’s total emissions. As the government’s chief environmental scientist, Ian Boyd, has said of our current economic system, ‘emissions are a symptom of consumption and, unless we reduce consumption, we’ll not reduce emissions’.

    “One reason construction consumes so much is because it is based on a wasteful economic model which often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in a haphazard fashion, and rebuilding from scratch. According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of the 200 million tonnes of waste generated in Britain annually, 63 per cent is construction debris. We lose more than 50,000 buildings through demolition every year and, while more than 90 per cent of the resulting waste material is recovered, much of this is recycled into a less valuable product or material, rather than being reused.”


  14. Andy Worthington says...

    And check out this report for Historic England, ‘There’s No Place Like Old Homes: Re-Use and Recycle to Reduce Carbon’:

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    And this is from the Architects’ Journal just last week – ‘Government-backed coalition calls for mass retrofitting drive’, with the tagline, “Britain’s battered post-Covid economy could be rebooted through a major retrofit programme which would slash emissions and create jobs, the Coalition for the Energy Efficiceny of Buildings (CEEB) has said”:

  16. COVID-19 And Economic Meltdown: Was Global Tourism Only Thing Keeping Us Afloat? – OpEd | NOQTA says...

    […] insane housing and office development industry back in May, in an article entitled, Coronavirus and the Meltdown of the Construction Industry: Bloated, Socially Oppressive and Environm…, and I was pleased to see, in the Observer yesterday, an assessment that a future of […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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