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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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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