Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

The spread of digital everything has propelled sharing to a whole new level

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 27 November 2014 19:50
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The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone

The "sharing economy" has been around in various incarnations for a while – perhaps even, in its broadest sense, since our ancestors dwelt in caves. Go back 20 years or more, and scarcely a season would go by without someone, somewhere, introducing a hyper-local currency to encourage people to buy local services, or a new scheme encouraging people to barter their skills – you cook me a casserole, I teach you Russian, that sort of idea.

But the spread of digital everything has propelled sharing to a whole new level. From eBay to Uber to Airbnb and hundreds of other sites – that offer car-sharing, peer-to-peer lending, and back again, via music-sharing, to skill-sharing – people now have the means to capitalise on assets that hitherto lay idle. Sharing is such a warm and fuzzy concept, isn’t it? Just perfect for the post-plutocratic age of austerity.

From the political left, where sharing seems akin to good old-fashioned co-operative socialism (even the little guy should be able to afford a taxi), to the free-market right, which holds that everyone has the makings of a millionaire, the sharing economy is seen as a thoroughly wholesome development. It commands a remarkably broad consensus as a jolly good thing – or, in the business jargon, a “win-win”.

Which, in many respects, it is. Car clubs in urban areas should reduce congestion, pressure on parking and pollution. Something similar applies to car-pooling, which could be encouraged if the owner/driver is allowed to make a small profit. There is much to be said for tool-sharing, as there is for plying a trade on your own terms, as part of skill-bartering or for real money. So it is perhaps no wonder, in the spirit of the times (and in recognition, perhaps, of both actual and potential lost tax revenue), that the Government wants to get in on the act.

To that end, it commissioned a review, which was published earlier this week, entitled “Unlocking the sharing economy”. Conducted by Debbie Wosskow – herself a sharing economy star as chief executive of the home exchange start-up Love Home Swap – it quoted the accountants, PwC, as calculating that this sector is worth around £500m a year and could be worth £9bn by 2025. It also found that 70 per cent of the UK population would share their idle assets if it were easy or convenient. Wosskow’s vision is of the UK as a nation not of shopkeepers, but of “micro-entrepreneurs”, co-operating dynamically for their own and the collective good.

As I say, who could possibly be against such a prospect? Well, there are some. There are the city cabbies, from London to Berlin, who fear being undercut by amateurs from Uber (and on the rather crucial matter of insurance, rather than expertise, they may have a point). There are some trade unions, who worry that low-paid workers could be done out of jobs by others agreeing to work for less than the statutory minimum wage. Then there are anti-enterprise curmudgeons like me.

It so happened that the release of “Unlocking the sharing economy” coincided with the appearance of an extensive blogpost on the website of the (Conservative) Centre for Policy Studies. Anticipating a recommendation by Wosskow, to the effect that tenants should be allowed to sublet all or part of their space, Adam Memon called for everyone, in whatever sort of accommodation, to be allowed to sublet as a matter of course.

In his post, he condemned the arguments advanced by a Democratic New York senator against her constituents subletting on Airbnb as “both chilling and revealing”. Essentially what she had said was that “if you live in an apartment with people living to the right and the left, below and above, your right to let strangers stay in your home for money affects all your neighbours”. She went on to spell that out in an American way, about conditions of tenancy and lawsuits. I would spell it out in a British way.

Whether you live in a house or a flat, but especially a flat, and whether you are a tenant or an owner-occupier, you are part of a community and have a stake in it. You learn where and when to put out the rubbish; you try not to disturb the neighbours; there are time and volume restrictions on noise. There is a delicate balance that is easily upset. Anyone who sublets “to earn a little extra money”, as Memon sympathetically puts it, risks destroying that balance.

Westminster Council has already indicated that it may lift restrictions on subletting, and not just – apparently – for council tenants. That could prompt some lucrative business for lawyers, as long-term residents in private flats with restricted covenants on subletting try to stop their blocks becoming, at best, glorified hotels and at worst dosshouses for an itinerant population.

Memon calls attitudes like that of the New York Senator (and me) as “patronising paternalism verging on outright authoritarianism” that hinders the blossoming of the entrepreneurial sharing economy. Obviously, I would prefer to call it understandable concern for a certain quality of life.

Couldn’t we make a little more effort to have Britain ‘Great’?

As a one-time ex-pat (a foreign correspondent), I developed an interest in something that is now called “national branding” – the way countries project themselves internationally in what is seen as a global competition for business and tourists. With the exception of the 2012 Olympics, I don’t think we do it very well.

The latest “Britain is Great” campaign annoys me every time I pass the vast hoardings above Vince Cable’s empire (formerly the Department of Trade and Industry). It combines smugness with second-rateness to a degree that should embarrass a country.

Airports offer almost infinite opportunities for national branding, yet again we mostly fall short. For a brief spell, Heathrow managed some big pictures of cheerful Yeomen of the Guard, but those seem to have gone. This week, the reception at Heathrow Terminal 5 – the flagship of our national carrier – had reverted to the usual giant promotions for banking and prominent warnings that abuse of staff would not be tolerated. Welcome, as we say, to Britain.

The inadequacies seemed particularly striking as I was returning from Stockholm, where you are greeted with a large “Welcome to Sweden” sign and huge portraits of the King and Queen. Plus, the exit corridor is lined with equally large portraits of distinguished Swedes. Now I know that any proposal for a line of distinguished Brits would prompt an almighty row, but couldn’t we just try a bit harder?

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