A new, rebalanced UK could be the happy legacy of a shift to working from home | Rowan Moore

A new, rebalanced UK could be the happy legacy of a shift to working from home | Rowan Moore

Here’s the dream. From now on, more people will work from home more of the time, which means that, for the same total commuting time per week, they can live further from the big, pressurised, expensive metropolitan centres, especially London, but also cities such as Manchester, Bristol or Edinburgh.

Such workers can find cheaper locations where they can afford more space, perhaps a garden, assets that among other things become more important if you’re working from home. For many, it might make the difference between being able to buy a home and forever chasing the impossible mirage of ownership in the overpriced capital.

While there are many jobs where remote working is impossible, in care work, for example, it does look as if it will be more than a fad for a privileged few. The government, it was reported last week, is thinking of making working from home a “default” option, one that employees would have a right to request. “Sixty three per cent of members of the Institute of Directors,” it was also reported, “said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.”

These “workfromhomers”, spending maybe four days out of seven in the places where they live, would contribute more to the economic and social life of their communities than typical commuters or weekenders. Last summer, there was a minor government-led panic about the hit to Pret a Manger’s 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 altogether?

We’re not talking about those well-known scenic locations where the pandemic has pushed high prices higher – Cornwall, the Cotswolds – as well-off urbanites seek their digitally connected rural idyll. In these places, access to housing for local people, already limited, is being put further out of reach. Rather, a dispersal of human and economic energy from overheated centres could go to the many towns and cities where more population and more investment might be beneficial: Southampton, Ipswich, Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield, Cardiff, to make a somewhat random list from many possibilities.

These are places whose past has left them with good bones – Victorian investment in parks and art galleries, theatres, market halls, access to beautiful landscapes, historic buildings and, except where local authorities’ contractors cut them down, streets with mature trees. The typical housing stock might be 19th or early 20th century: brick-built terraces with gardens, basically the same serviceable 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 most fraught and intractable problems of British society and politics – housing – would, if this dream were to come true, be at least partly addressed. For decades, successive governments, at least since Margaret Thatcher’s environment minister Nicholas Ridley started talking about relaxing the green belt, have been stymied by the encounter of the unstoppable force that is housing demand with the immovable object that is resistance to development in the regions where it is needed most. As the voters of Chesham and Amersham made clear, nothing has changed. Most residents of the rural and suburban south-east don’t want homes built near them and the government’s wittering about building “beautiful” houses is not persuading them. In a well-run country, it should be possible to build well-planned neighbourhoods in green belts in a way that benefits everyone, but that is not the country we currently inhabit.

So why not embrace a future where a good part of housing need can be met without building anything new? Where the well-documented decline of high streets could be countered by bringing new residents into town centres and inner suburbs, some of whom could inhabit conversions of vacant retail space? This would have significant environmental advantages; as is now being belatedly realised, a large part of the carbon emissions and energy consumption in the lifetime of a house comes when it is being built.

Some of these shifts were already happening before the pandemic. Fast trains and high London prices were making some Midlands towns attractive to commuters. Coastal towns in Kent and Sussex, such as Margate, Ramsgate and Hastings, were drawing people priced out of the capital. Remote working makes this pattern possible over a much larger scale. It wouldn’t all be easy. Most obviously, this dream could be a case of gentrification on a national scale – the subjection of entire cities to the processes that have taken place in London districts such as Shoreditch and Brixton. Those coastal towns have a term for incomers – DFLs or Down From Londons, which is not entirely affectionate. Or, in one town, FILTH – Failed In London, Try Hastings.

The wide geographic dispersal of remote workers could alleviate one problem of gentrification, which is the intense pressure and preciousness that it brings to bear on relatively few and small communities. It would also help that this migration wouldn’t all be of creative industry hipsters, but of office workers in a wide range of businesses, many of them thirtysomethings who’d 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 get pushed out by rising rents, while a few landowners and early-adopting incomers cash in on the rise in property 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 comes when a shop becomes a home, and directing the money towards affordable housing and other public benefits.

Unfortunately, recent relaxations of the controls of such conversions makes constructive planning more difficult. But perhaps the government might see that it is in its interest to enable the rebalancing of the country that could come with working from home. It might help them to “level up” as well as appeasing blue-wall voters.

I hesitate to propose a policy that could keep this administration in power for ever, but the wise encouragement of urban renewal through remote working might just do that.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture critic

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