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Head for the Hills

Will working from home help ‘level up’ the UK, asks Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities?

In just a few months we have seen a revolution in how we work. Structural changes that usually take decades happened overnight as businesses and workers had to find new ways of working effectively without the benefits that the traditional office brings.

In many respects I am impressed by how well organisations and individuals have adapted to the use of video chat and instant messaging. But it hasn’t been entirely plain sailing; the benefits of face-to-face interaction are hard to replicate, even on video chat, and working from home has meant that we’ve missed out on the spontaneous spark of new ideas and the building of camaraderie and common purpose that being in the office provides.

Whatever the future holds, it looks unlikely that our working lives will return exactly to as they were pre-lockdown. Some commentators have even suggested that this new approach to employment, in which the majority of people work from home, will actually help level up the country.

They argue that now we have fully embraced our ability to work anywhere, people no longer need to base themselves in London, Oxford, Cambridge or any of the other prosperous cities and towns in England’s Greater South East. Instead, we will see more highly-skilled people – consultants, lawyers, engineers – moving elsewhere: to Mansfield, Wakefield or Burnley, or even further afield to places such as Cumbria or Cornwall.

I’m sceptical about this. Throughout history people have always clustered together to trade, to learn and to have fun. The more successful a place becomes, the more people naturally want to head there to make their own fortunes and live the good life. This is even truer for highly-skilled people; in the UK, more high-skilled jobs are based in cities and large towns in the Greater South East than in the rest of the country put together.

And while some more senior high-skilled people, probably with families, in secure jobs may well dream of the chance to re-locate, we should be careful about overstating how many actually will.

Throughout history people have always clustered together to trade, to learn and to have fun. The more successful a place becomes, the more people naturally want to head there to make their own fortunes and live the good life.

First there are practicalities to consider. Work-based face-to-face interaction isn’t going to disappear; an employer in London will still see the value of a twice weekly team meeting – this would be time consuming and expensive for an employee based in Cumbria to get to. It would be far easier for them to continue to live in the Greater South East – which is what currently happens when those living in London decide to move out of the city – limiting the levelling up potential of them moving to a less affluent area.

 

Additionally, while working remotely may suit established and older employees, it presents younger workers with a big challenge: how do you progress in your career when you are working in a silo and can’t watch or learn from your more experienced colleagues? Working remotely makes job progression much harder. Added to this, younger people are likely to continue to be drawn to bigger and more successful cities because of the better social and cultural life that they offer.

 

People hoping to move out of the Greater South East, while retaining their higher salaries, may well be disappointed. Facebook in the USA has told employees that they can work from anywhere, but their salary will be adjusted to reflect local pay – so no getting Silicon Valley salaries while living in Idaho. In the UK I would expect the magic circle law firms and big four accountants to take a similar approach to Facebook.

 

So, on a practical level I have reservations with the idea that people will begin to move their high-skilled jobs around the country now they have got used to working from home. But I’m more fundamentally sceptical about the theory that doing this would help the government’s levelling up agenda.

 

At its most basic level, the problem that we face in this country is that people living in cities and towns outside the Greater South East of England are less likely to have the advanced qualifications needed to get them the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will improve their lives. The lack of available skills influences the types of businesses that locate in these areas. While in Reading almost one in four businesses are ‘knowledge intensive’, in Burnley less than one in 20 are. The lack of high-paying knowledge jobs means there are few high-skilled workers and vice versa.

How do you progress in your career when you are working in a silo and can’t watch or learn from your more experienced colleagues? Working remotely makes job progression much harder.

It will require a genuine and sustained long-term commitment to investing in further and adult education, two sectors that have seen their budgets cut significantly over the last decade.

Moving a couple of thousand people out of London and dispersing them around the country will not address this problem. Instead, the government’s levelling up agenda should be about creating more high paying firms and jobs outside the South East and training people to a level to which they can actually take these jobs.

 

This will not be an easy task. It will require a genuine and sustained long-term commitment to investing in further and adult education, two sectors that have seen their budgets cut significantly over the last decade. Investment in these areas would have a huge benefit in exactly the types of ‘left behind’ places that the government wants to level up. In Mansfield, just two in ten people have high skilled qualifications, compared to six in ten in Oxford.

 

But investment in people won’t be enough. We need to make it easier for people to access jobs as they are created, through improvements to our transport infrastructure. Importantly, this does not just mean connecting cities together through grand projects such as HS2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail. It also means improving local transport connections that link the centres of our biggest city-regions to their suburbs and surrounding towns.

 

The most effective way of doing this will be to bring bus services outside of London up to the same standards as we see within London by adopting TfL’s franchising model, whereby the local transport authority sets the routes and fares while outsourcing the driving to bus companies. This would make fares simpler to understand and result in improved services – making it easier and cheaper to connect people with jobs across city regions such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

 

Ultimately it is too soon to tell whether huge swathes of people will move out of cities, but even if they do we shouldn’t expect this to level up the country. This requires sustained commitment from government. It has so far indicated that it is serious about this, so I’ll be watching the announcements that are made ahead of the Autumn Spending Review to see how our government will make this happen.

 

Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities. Images courtesy of  Parallel – © parallel, ONS, OS OpenData, Mapbox