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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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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