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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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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