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Is the cost of the commute killing our towns and cities?

Is the cost of the commute killing our towns and cities?

Damian Tungatt discusses what's keeping workers away from the city centre, and what may happen if there's no return to the status quo.

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We have all now realised that the majority of us can work effectively at home. As the media likes to frequently tell us, the ‘new normal’ is London bankers safely working from their kitchen tables in our more remote dormitory towns and our need for the office is increasingly identified as the social part it plays in our working lives as opposed to the traditional place of toil we once knew. The office is now seen as the creative hub - a place to discuss ideas and have beers with our colleagues…. so why are we not rushing back after months of enforced isolation?

Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme undoubtably seemed to be a success in getting people out of their Covid slumber and back into their local pubs, bars, and restaurants, but our desire to return to the office to socialise is not being met with the same enthusiasm.

According to a recent survey by analysts at Morgan Stanley, as of mid-August, only 34% of U.K. office workers have returned to their normal work locations, in contrast to figures ranging from 70-83% in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Whilst us Brits may be known for being a more reserved bunch, these figures suggest that we are practically hermits compared to our European counterparts. So, what are the underlying problems with the mass office return? After all, Rishi demonstrated that we can be sociable when we want to be, and the benefits of social interaction between co-workers is also well documented.

From your kitchen desk, the news that commuter season tickets are set to rise by an average of more than £70 in 2021 may have passed you by this time round. This increase will, however, mean the cost of a 12-month season ticket from Brighton to London will rise by £80 to £5,060 a year, with Chelmsford commuters having to find an extra £67. The cost of the season ticket represents about 13% of an average UK salary, compared to only 2% of the average salary in France, 3% in Italy, 4% in Germany, and 5% in Spain.

With most people’s season tickets having now expired, this is serious money to spend when the ‘no cost’ alternative is to continue working from home. The benefit of returning to the office for only 2 or 3 days a week provides for little in the way of saving against the annual cost, so it is really becoming all or nothing.

We know that the Pret a Mangers and greasy spoons next to our offices need us to survive, and we all miss the office local, but if our £4 cheese and pickle sandwich comes with a £45 daily fare to go and get it, one can convince themselves to do without.

Certainly, the chief executive of the New West End Company which represents hundreds of shops, bars, and restaurants thinks similarly. When recently speaking to the Evening Standard he said that the higher fares were the latest disincentive for the once daily commuters whose spending fuels the central London economy.

The big question in this debate is how we should address this. Should the mass return to city-centre offices be promoted and aided by some sort of Grant Shapps travel initiative before it is too late; what would that look like?

Or should we let things run their course with a more sustainable local culture taking the place of the commute over time? A YouGov poll released by Co-operatives UK suggests we may be leaning in that direction already. Thirty percent of shoppers reported using local retailers more during lockdown and 80% of them aim to continue to do so. Similarly, a study by Opinium reported that a whopping 82% of respondents would like to continue home working on at least a part-time basis, and around half had already discussed such an arrangement with their employer. This would throw city-centre retail and large office development under the bus, and we may be seeing the last of such areas. Wales in particular seems to have fewer compunctions about maintaining some of our lock-down habits. Just this week, announcements were made that Wales will seek to retain a work from home share of around 30% of employees. 

But perhaps not all hope is lost for our town centres. Evidence suggests that those high streets with greater diversity of retail and land use are bouncing back noticeably faster and with less long-term repercussions than areas of intense but limited range of use. There may be new markets for city-centre chains to expand into as a result, in areas which previously would not have supported them.  

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