New rebalanced UK could be the happy legacy of a shift to work from home | Rowan moore
Hthis is the dream. Now, more people will be working from home more often, which means that for the same total travel time per week, they can live further away from large, pressurized and expensive metropolitan centers, notably London, but also cities like Manchester, Bristol or Edinburgh.
These workers can find cheaper locations where they can afford more space, perhaps a garden, assets that, among other things, become more important if you work from home. For many, that could mean the difference between being able to buy a home and forever pursuing the impossible mirage of ownership in the overpriced capital.
While there are many jobs where remote work is not possible, in care work, for example, it looks like it will be more than a fad for the privileged few. The government, it was reported last week, is considering making working from home a “default” option, an option that employees would have the right to request. “Sixty-three percent of the members of the Institute of Directors,” it was also reported, “said they intended to switch to working from home for office workers between one and four. days a week. “
These “home workers”, spending perhaps four days a week in the places where they live, would contribute more to the economic and social life of their communities than commuters or typical weekends. Last summer there was a small government-led panic over the blow to Pret a Manger profits that came with the desertion of business districts due to the pandemic. But wouldn’t it be better in almost every way if people bought their lunches and coffees from local businesses? Or spent the money they saved on Pret sandwiches and lattes on something else?
We’re not talking about those well-known scenic spots where the pandemic has driven high prices up – Cornwall, the Cotswolds – as well-off city dwellers seek their digitally connected rural idyll. In these places, access to housing for local populations, already limited, is increasingly inaccessible. On the contrary, a dispersion of human and economic energy from overheated centers could go to the many towns and cities where more population and more investment could be beneficial: Southampton, Ipswich, Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield, Cardiff, to make a somewhat random list among many possibilities.
These are places whose past has left them good bones – Victorian investment in parks and art galleries, theaters, market halls, access to beautiful landscapes, historic buildings and, except when the entrepreneurs of the local authorities cut them down, streets with mature trees. The typical building stock could be 19th or early 20th century: brick terraces with gardens, essentially the same usable and popular type that goes for seven-figure sums per house in London. Elsewhere, they can sell for a tenth as much.
One of the thorniest and most intractable problems in British society and politics – housing – would, if this dream come true, at least partly resolved. For decades successive governments, at least since Margaret Thatcher’s Environment Minister Nicholas Ridley began talking about loosening the green belt, have been stymied by the meeting of the unstoppable force that is the demand for housing with the real object of resistance to development in the regions where it is most needed. As the voters of Chesham and Amersham made clear, nothing has changed. Most people in the rural and suburban areas of the southeast do not want houses built nearby, and the government’s talk about building “beautiful” houses does not persuade them. In a well-run country, it should be possible to build well-planned neighborhoods in green belts in a way that benefits everyone, but this is not the country we inhabit now.
So why not embrace a future where much of the housing need can be met without building anything new? Where could the well-documented decline of shopping streets be countered by bringing new residents to city centers and suburbs, some of whom might inhabit conversions of vacant commercial space? This would have significant environmental benefits; as we belatedly realize, a large part of the carbon emissions and energy consumption over the life of a home comes during its construction.
Some of these changes were already happening before the pandemic. Fast trains and high prices in London made some cities in the Midlands attractive to commuters. The coastal towns of Kent and Sussex, such as Margate, Ramsgate and Hastings, drew people out of the capital. Remote working makes this model possible on a much larger scale. It wouldn’t all be easy. Clearly, this dream could be a case of nationwide gentrification – the subjugation of entire cities to the processes that have taken place in London neighborhoods such as Shoreditch and Brixton. These coastal towns have a term for arrivals – DFL or Down From Londons, which isn’t quite affectionate. Or, in a city, FILTH – Fail in London, try Hastings.
The wide geographic dispersion of remote workers could alleviate a gentrification problem, namely the intense pressure and preciousness it exerts on relatively few and small communities. It would also help that this migration is not all hipsters in the creative industry, but office workers in a wide range of businesses, many of whom are in their thirties who would just like to find enough space to start a family.
But the worst thing about gentrification is its unequal distribution of costs and benefits. Residents and businesses are being driven by rising rents, while a few landowners and early adopters are benefiting from rising house prices. The planning system, in principle, can do something about this, for example by protecting established uses or capturing some of the increase in value that occurs when a store becomes a home, and directing the money towards affordable housing and other public benefits.
Unfortunately, the recent relaxation of controls on these conversions makes constructive planning more difficult. But maybe the government will see that it is in its best interests to allow the rebalancing of the country that could come from working from home. It could help them “take it to the next level” as well as appease the Blue voters.
I hesitate to come up with a policy that might keep this administration in power forever, but the wise encouragement of urban renewal through remote working might well do.