In which British cities do people work from home?

Blackpool, where a surprising proportion of people work from home, but like – in the 1890s. Image: Trials and Errors / Flickr

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Working from home is a beautiful, underappreciated human phenomenon. Honestly. David Attenborough should study it in his next big programme.

In its natural habitat of the small unkempt conversion flats of North London, the young adult male freelancer hunches over the light of his laptop. He is emailing his boss and, as is common for his species, is doing so in his pyjamas. He has not showered yet today, and it is unlikely that he will for the foreseeable future.

It’s a great life, right? You wear whatever you want, eat whenever you want, smell as bad as you like, but you still get the job done, contribute to the UK economy, build a country that works for everyone etc etc. Everybody wins.

Which is what makes it surprising that so few people in the UK do it.

Admittedly, the most recent data we have on this is from 2011 – the last UK census  but the figures are still worth looking at.

Even in the top five cities in which people work from home, the numbers aren’t that huge. Around 12 per cent of Brighton-dwellers take up the opportunity; 11.3 per cent in Bournemouth relish underpants-office-life; 11.2 per cent feel similarly in Aldershot; Reading comes in fifth with 11 per cent.

Given the wonders of the internet – Skype, Slack, Facebook, email, screensharing and the importance of wearing pyjamas, the fact that only one in ten choose to work from home even in cities with high concentrations of home-workers seems surprising.

There doesn’t seem to be wild variation between cities, either. Even the cities where people are least likely to work from home aren’t so far behind Brighton and its ilk.

Brighton, with ilk variously parked in cars. Image: Diego Torres / Flickr.

In Hull, 5.1 per cent work from home; 6 per cent of Liverpudlians are work-from-homers. Sunderland has 6.3 per cent, Crawley 6.6 per cent, and Plymouth 6.7 per cent.

And there doesn’t seem to be a phenomenal rush to work from home, either. Comparing the data from the 2001 and 2011 censuses shows visually that proportions have crept up a little bit, but Brits still seem reticent to throw in the towel and work from home.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.  

The biggest increases came in the aforementioned Brighton – where the percentage of people who work from home has gone up by 2.8 points from 2001 – and Belfast, where the increase was 2.5 points. The hallowed halls of Cambridge and Oxford saw a growth of 2 points or so, while Reading clocked a 1.9 percentage points increase.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.  

In a vague attempt to try and work out how the most work-from-home-ish cities might have earned their titles, it’s worth looking at house prices, as ever. But it’s worth doing that with a slight caveat. London, obviously, warps everything. Its house prices are so far beyond the pale, and its diversity in employment, workplaces, and just about every metric means that it is a fairly severe outlier on this comparison.

So, to make life more convenient, I’ll just leave it out. The graph below compares the proportion of people who worked from home according to the 2011 census – the most recent data available with the average house price in 2015 again, the most recent data, with London taken out of the equation altogether.

Click to enlarge. Image: Centre for Cities. 

Now it’s not perfect, but you can see there’s definitely a slight correlation. Cities like Oxford and Cambridge stick out because of their stupendous house prices, while Blackpool overperforms on the working from home front relative to its lower house price average.

But interestingly, when you change the view from a static picture to a changing picture, that correlation doesn’t hold up as well.

Click to enlarge. Image: Centre for Cities. 

This graph shows house price growth from 2003 to 2015 (the full range of data available) alongside the change in the proportion of people working from home from 2001 to 2011 (again, full range of data).

You can see fairly quickly that the correlation isn’t anything like as strong. Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, and London stick out like a sore thumb, whilst all the other cities sort of huddle together generically like they’re waiting for the sad bus to hyper-cool-city-land.

I really can't think why house prices might be high here. Image: Alex Brown / Flickr.

So for now, all we really know is that if you live in a city where house prices are higher, you’re probably a little more likely to work from home. I guess if you’ve paid through the teeth for a place, you’re more likely to want to spend every waking moment working in it and every sleeping moment sleeping in it.


But with more people working self-employed, and the fabled portfolio career – if under 30, read: unemployed; if over 30, read: more successful than you – becoming more popular, who knows? Maybe the 2021 census will hold out all kinds of working-from-home-related excitements.

One can only hope.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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