Working From Home (WFH) enables those who are fortunate enough to have the option a much better lifestyle. Some can already WFH 5 days a week but with vastly improved Internet connections, WFH 3-4 days a week is increasingly possible for many.
Most organizations still have their offices in and around major cities but if you only have to go to an office 1-2 days a week a longer commute is feasible – making it possible to live in far more attractive places than the big cities.
WFH is socially transformational – with lots of consequences for those who can and choose to do it.
It is only an option for some sectors of the working population – manufacturing still needs factories, healthcare needs hospitals but as retailing is discovering, the move to ecommerce means fewer shops are needed. This in turn has huge consequences for the property and investment sectors.
Companies will also need less office space. “Hot desking” is already common and studies have shown that remote working is no less productive. Taking it further, as the need to be in the office reduces, the need for the office to be in a major city reduces. Provided the office is in a location with good transport links and a large catchment area a secondary town is fine. “Silicon Rammy” (Ramsbottom) is already used as an example.
Some people like living in big cities; they have some attractions but I am a country boy and much prefer small town/village life. Housing in secondary towns and villages is usually much cheaper and I am convinced that the country is a much better place to bring-up children.
In the UK we have lots of secondary towns and villages and distances are relatively short. Transport links are often dire but where I live it is less than an hour to Manchester, Stoke, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Birmingham – and even London is under 2 hours. And another impact of WFH is on transport; there is a lesser need for work-related commuting
WFH offers an opportunity for the many secondary towns that have troubled high streets to re-invent themselves. It is delusional to believe that many high streets can survive. Technology, especially the rise of ecommerce is likely to cause the demise of 500+ of our 1000 high streets. The problem and solutions mostly lie with insufficiently adventurous local authorities and central government imposed constraints (e.g. rates). Excellent engagement by locals – Macclesfield’s Treacle market (the busiest day of the month) can only have a limited impact.
Instead, the towns have to adapt. Some (e.g. Burslem) have huge challenge but others like Macclesfield, Leek, Buxton also have huge advantages owing to their location that make them ideal for people who can WFH.
One improvement that nearly everyone should now be able to enjoy is shorter working hours; 60-80 hour weeks, common a few years ago are disappearing – and the sooner zero-hours contracts are banned the better.
Re-purposing failing towns to be places where people want to live must be high on any government’s priorities. Creating low cost affordable housing, community hubs, attractive markets, good local transport connections are all essential to achieve this.
The number of “core towns” – not just London, Manchester, Birmingham but those that serve a wide area (Chester, Lincoln) will remain but the truly secondary towns must have a major rethink and need dynamic local management.
Funding can be made available. One obvious source is cancelling HS2, which is not needed and already showing signs of failing. Far more people are impacted by our failing towns than will benefit from HS2 (and HS3).
Recognising and understanding the problems that towns face is the first part of finding a solution. There is no “one size fits all” solution but local government, with strong backing from central government has to be the starting point. Unfortunately, much of our local government is weak. Until local/town government admits “we are failing”, their MPs support them and they engage with the local community, they will continue to fail.
Central government must boost failing towns by encouraging investment in them. This can be done in a number of ways, most of which can only be done by pulling economic levers. Properly executed, a strategy for secondary towns will help solve the housing crisis, improve transportation and most importantly, give many people a much better quality of life.
Quality of life is important. If you can live in a house with sufficient space, near amenities and good countryside (never far away in the UK) – where children can grow-up happy and safe, you are fortunate.