Fearful for the future, fed up with the government, and divided over Brexit – here’s what urban Britain thinks

A city, where people have opinions. This one is Newport. Image: Getty.

The UK’s cities were one of the key political battlegrounds of last year’s General Election. Labour may have consolidated its vote in big metropolitan areas in England and Wales – but the Tories made surprising inroads in places such as Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Walsall.

It’s clear, then, that cities will continue to be an important political battleground in the coming years – and that for either of the main political parties to make a breakthrough, they’ll need to win over urban voters.

But what do people in UK cities think about the key political issues of the day? And how do they feel about the political and economic direction that the UK is heading in?

To get an insight into these questions, Centre for Cities recently commissioned polling company ComRes to survey urban voters – that is, those who live in Britain’s 62 largest urban areas – on some of the most pressing issues the UK faces, from Brexit, immigration and house prices, to broader questions about where political power should reside.

The findings suggest that Britain’s urban residents are far from content about the political path the UK is on, and the current status quo of Westminster politics.

Urban Britons are gloomy about the UK’s future prospects, and their own

On the positive side, 42 per cent of people in cities said that the UK would be more economically prosperous in 2030 than it is now, compared to 30 per cent who disagreed.

However, just over a third (36 per cent) said they believe that future generations will be more financially prosperous than they are now. An even smaller number – just 31 per cent – agreed that that the UK is going in the right direction politically, compared to 51 per cent who disagreed. 

People in cities are less progressive on immigration than you might think

Concerns about immigration helped drive the vote for Brexit, yet it’s often assumed that this is primarily a concern in towns and rural areas – and that the UK’s city dwellers are more liberal on this issue.

But the polling suggests that people in cities are less open and tolerant of immigration than you might think. The majority of people in cities say that immigration has made a positive contribution to the UK economy over the last 30 years (59 per cent), and that immigrants contribute towards greater cultural diversity (62 per cent).

However, even more people in cities say that current levels of immigration have left public services overstretched (68 per cent), and that the UK is “now full” as a result of current immigration levels (64 per cent)

Moreover, just over a quarter of city dwellers say think that the UK should welcome more immigrants (27 per cent)

The ‘Big Society’ lives on in UK cities

David Cameron’s plans for the ‘Big Society’ may be a distant memory, but the polling suggests that some of the thinking behind this initiative lives on in UK cities. In particular, it indicates that people in cities want national government to take a back seat – and let communities and individuals take the lead on local services.

When we asked urban voters about who should take decisions about public services in their areas, nearly two thirds said that local government (61 per cent), community groups (62 per cent) and individuals (63 per cent) should have a stake. But only 30 per cent said national government should be involved in decision-making to some extent.

Out of these four groups, 43 per cent of people in cities said local government should take the lead in these decisions – but nearly a quarter (24 per cent) said individual residents should be most responsible, and 17 per cent said community groups. Just 15 per cent said that national government should have the most responsibility for these issues.

More people in cities said that they can vote for someone who understands and represents them in local elections (50 per cent) than in national ballots (43 per cent).

 Support for a second referendum on the UK’s Brexit deal is strong in cities

Given that people in cities largely voted to remain in the EU, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is considerable appetite among urban voters for a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal.

Nearly half of urban Britons (48 per cent) say they support the idea of a second referendum, compared to 35 per cent who oppose it.

Most analysis of the vote for Brexit focused on the sense of disillusionment and alienation felt in Britain’s ‘left-behind places’ – the towns and rural areas where the vote to leave the EU was strongest.

But two years on from the referendum, this polling suggests that people in cities are similarly pessimistic about the political path the UK is on, and their position within it. These are lessons which the main political parties must pay heed to if they are to make the crucial breakthrough in UK cities needed to sweep to power in the next general election.

 Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities.

Methodology: ComRes interviewed 2,046 adults in Great Britain aged 18+ online between 18-20th May 2018. Respondents were categorised into those living inside and outside Primary Urban Areas (PUAs). Data from PUA and non-PUA residents were each weighted separately to be representative of all adults aged 18+ in those areas by age, gender, region and social grade. The overall sample was then weighted to be representative of the split between PUA and non-PUA residents overall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Tables can be found online here.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.