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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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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