London needs a bolder relationship with its immediate neighbours

Greater, Greater London. Image: Google.

It’s a classic tale of urban growth: people and businesses move out to find cheaper space, cities absorb other towns in their commuter belt, and politics have to catch up.

For London, this creates challenges at very large scale. The city is core to a much greater economic region, the Wider South East, which is home to over a third of the country’s population and jobs. This Southern Superhub has done well economically: in the last five years, it made up for 53 per cent of service sector jobs creations in the UK. A record number of people commute across the London boundary, and many London firms have offices, suppliers and clients in other Wider South East cities.

The challenges of high living costs, low pay and crowded transport are also straddling boundaries. The government has calculated that the Wider South East will need 1.5m homes by 2026 – but most local authorities inside and outside London have struggled to meet previous, lower housing targets. As cash-strapped local authorities feel unable to accommodate rapid change, the relationship between London and its neighbours has in some places turned sour.

Housing is by far the most contentious topic. Both sides have blamed each other over “whose growth” it is, and whether they are doing enough to accommodate it. Several neighbours are annoyed that London has ruled out changes to its greenbelt land, when they are reviewing their own to find space for housing. Some at the Greater London Authority are frustrated that several other councils have blocked attempts to collaborate over housing and transport investment.

Until recently, London mayors have not really focused on engaging surrounding jurisdictions in their decisions. They have no legal requirement to agree any strategy with neighbours, and to avoid being seen as reliant on them, all three London mayors decided that the city should accommodate all of its growth. This aligned nicely with the interests of most towns outside, who saw “London overspill” as a threat to their identity.

The economic geography of London and its wider region. Image: Centre for London.

The government did not seek to spark conversations about the region’s future either. Its funding is very centralised and formulaic. Large projects are, more often than not, delivered without a regional outlook: London’s neighbours did not contribute to Crossrail, and the new Lower Thames crossing was not seen as a project of regional importance.

But politics is starting to catch up. Among local political leaders, there is more awareness that London and its neighbours are too connected and dependent for councils to tackle challenges on their own. They also feel remarkably underpowered to address them – they have little control over how they raise and spend public money – and hope that speaking with a common voice will grab government attention.

Several local authorities have been partnering to draft economic and transport strategies, and to make a joint case for greater investment. A group of political leaders representing London and the rest of the Wider South East also meet regularly to strengthen dialogue on shared issues, and this year the Mayor is taking part in their annual summit.

But there are difficult decisions ahead, and we think it’s time for this initiative to step up its ambitions. The Wider South East political group needs to evolve into a forum where decisions can be made, and common asks are taken to government. It needs to become more strategic, and draft a vision for the whole region – an industrial strategy for the Southern Superhub.

Government could do much to support, by rewarding collaboration with additional financial and political freedoms, and long-term infrastructure investment. Reshaping the Minister for London into a senior minister for the Wider South East would be a good start.

Sceptics note that having 156 local authorities speak with a single voice is close to impossible. But the urgency of challenges facing the region, and the progress made in the last few years, suggests that much could be achieved with the right government incentives.

Nicolas Bosetti is a senior researcher at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

Next-door Neighbours has been jointly published by Centre for London, the capital’s dedicated think tank, and the Southern Policy Centre, the think tank for central southern England.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”