Remote working, for all its benefits, also has two negative impacts: it risks blighting urban centres, and exacerbating geographic, socio-economic and mental health inequalities. A strategic approach to remote working would not only address these impacts; it could also reverse them: regenerating high streets and reducing a range of inequalities. The solution is for local bodies such as councils, libraries and job centres to provide co-working spaces in the locations and for the people that need them the most. The solution pays for itself, when compared to the cost of blighted areas, loneliness and unemployment.
Remote working, for all its benefits, also has two negative impacts: it risks blighting fragile urban centres, and exacerbating geographic, socio-economic and mental health inequalities. Allowing this to happen would be a missed opportunity, when remote working could be strategically deployed to achieve the precise opposite: regenerating high streets and reducing inequalities.
For example, the government has linked remote working with levelling up in its agenda to ship Whitehall jobs out of London and into the regions and nations of the UK. However, without a more strategic intervention to put in place the infrastructure needed for remote working in the areas of the country that are “left behind” and most in need of levelling up, the policy may not achieve the desired outcomes. The risk is that London workers will move out to the regions with their jobs – likely to the better-off areas that need them least – rather than the London jobs going to people who live in the areas that need them most – such as former industrial towns where opportunities are fewest. Achieving the latter would be much more powerful than letting the former take place by default, but it requires investment and vision at the local level. For instance, potential applicants may not have access to a fast, reliable or affordable internet connection.
Similarly, remote working has the potential to exacerbate inequalities even in places like London. That is because jobs advertised on a remote working basis will be out of reach of many disadvantaged groups who live in the capital. Among them are poorer families who live in small accommodation and lack space for anyone to work from home. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who live on their own and may suffer from loneliness – with all the health risks and economic costs that that entails. 1 in 20 adults in England reported feeling lonely “often/always”, and academic studies have concluded that loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and worse than obesity. Research also found that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year.
Urban centres are in danger too. Many high streets were in a fragile state even before the pandemic. Now the long-term shift to remote working will further impact urban centres already reeling from lockdowns and the enormous growth of online shopping. Much office space is set to remain unoccupied as a large number or people continue to work from home, at least part of the week. In turn, fewer office workers means fewer surrounding shops, cafes and restaurants remain viable. So, remote working risks triggering a death spiral. Even at the 2020 Summer peak, when restrictions were relaxed, visits to high streets remained 40% below the level in January 2020, according to data analysed by the FT. This is a big challenge for local authorities, who will be left dealing with a huge loss of revenue from business rates as well as the complex and expensive task of redeveloping and regenerating those areas.
Luckily, there is a way to solve both problems at once. Public investment and a vision for the local area are required to turn the remote working revolution into something that helps regenerate urban centres, level up, reduce inequalities and boost opportunities and growth for all. The solution is for local bodies such as councils, libraries and job centres to provide co-working spaces in the locations that need them the most. Fees for access to co-working spaces could be on a sliding scale, with unemployed claimants able to access for free and subsidised rates for workers on low incomes. Better off workers may choose to pay a full rate to access a reliable connection and enjoy the communal atmosphere.
It would seem natural for job centres to offer such a space, as they could then support job seekers in applying for remote jobs and set them up for work. There is a natural fit for libraries too, since one imagines the workers will be drawn to and benefit from the library’s resources in doing their job. Growing the user base and putting underutilised space to good use might help restore and secure libraries’ place at the centre of communities.
But other venues – abandoned commercial premises in particular – should be targeted too as a way to shore up fragile high streets. Councils could play an active role there, but policy and tax levers are also needed to encourage the private sector to deliver spaces too. For example, planning procedures could be relaxed for changes of use to co-working space in designated areas and tax incentives created in the form of temporary suspension of business rates.
This solution pays for itself, when compared to the cost of blighted areas, the lost business rates from empty commercial space and the difficulty and cost of successful regeneration. The benefit-to-cost ratio is even higher once the cost of loneliness and the benefit of extending opportunities to unemployed, disadvantaged people are factored in. With the right incentives, this proposal could help create an economy where remote working is not the preserve of privileged workers, but an option truly available to all people up and down the country.