Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

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Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


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Why fewer Londoners are taking the tube: a transport researcher explains

This guest blog was written by Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

For the first time since 2008, the number of people using the world-famous London Underground – locally known as “the tube” – has fallen. After over two decades of long-term growth, passenger numbers are down 2%, from 1.38 billion in the financial year 2016-17, to 1.35 billion in 2017-18. Bus use also peaked in 2014, and has been falling steadily each year. Simply put, fewer people in London are using public transport – and this means fewer ticket sales. This has created a funding gap that puts plans for improvements and upgrades in serious jeopardy.

Since the national government cut its £700m a year grant, London’s transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), has been banking on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system. But this year, TfL has had to revise its income from tickets sales down by £240m.

This spells trouble for the agency, which plans for ticket sales to generate up to £6.2 billion, or 62%, of the £10.2 billion budget for 2022-23 – a step increase from today’s £4.6 billion, or 45% of this year’s budget. Since London Mayor Sadiq Khan is committed to freezing single fares, additional growth will need to come from more passengers.

This is, in some ways, a reasonable expectation: population and employment – the key drivers of transport demand – are still growing in London. TfL points towards economic factors, including the uncertainty of Brexit, to explain the downturn in demand for public transport. But this year’s lower passenger numbers point instead towards lifestyle changes, which are affecting when and how people choose to travel.

London’s missing passengers

Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20% from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9% drop in trips across all modes was recorded.

Passenger numbers and journey stages on London Underground. Travel in London Report 10/TfL, Author provided

Flexible and remote working practices are contributing to this trend: instead of commuting to work five days, the new normal for Londoners is now four. Over the past decade, commuting trips have dropped by 14.2%.

At the same time, the cost of travel has been increasing. While single fares on the bus and the tube cost approximately the same in real terms between 2000 and 2012, they have increased 5% and 3% respectively since then. The cost of season tickets is up even more; 8% on the bus and 6% on the London Underground in real terms since 2012.

Greater transport costs mean less disposable income, which partially explains why Londoners are making fewer leisure and shopping trips, instead opting to stay home and shop online. Meanwhile, London’s changing mix of traffic suggests that personal trips are being substituted with deliveries. This shifts the burden from the public transport network to the road network. Across London, light goods vans are making up a growing proportion of traffic: accounting for 14% of traffic in 2016, up from 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000.

Trouble for TFL

To avoid a major shortfall, TfL will need to look at new ways to fund transport. One solution might be to reform London’s congestion charge. Currently, the congestion charge covers less than 1.5% of the city, applies only between 7am and 6pm, consists of a simple, daily flat rate, and exempts private hire vehicles – your Uber drivers and minicabs.

Over the past four years, there has been a 75% increase in the number of registered private hire vehicles. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 cars flood the streets of Central London. With New York City set to introduce a surcharge for taxis and private hire vehicles (US$2.50 and US$2.75 respectively), London might also want to follow suit.

A more comprehensive road pricing strategy would be an effective tool to manage traffic and generate funds for the transport system. A reformed congestion charge alongside good public transport, cycling infrastructure and public space could encourage Londoners to shift away from their cars toward travelling by public transport, walking and cycling.

TfL predicts that most of its revenue growth – £3.2 billion over the next five years – will come from the new Elizabeth Line, which is set to start running in December 2018. By 2022-23, TfL expects passenger numbers on the Elizabeth Line to increase by 200m to 269m, and tickets sales to earn £913m. Over the same period, passenger numbers on the London Underground and bus network are forecast to rise by just 5% and 3% respectively.

The income from the Elizabeth Line is crucial to TfL balancing its books. As outgoing deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, warned, delays to the Elizabeth Line opening on time are TfL’s greatest revenue risk. So as engineering challenges threaten to push back the opening date, TfL’s money worries look set to worsen.

The funding conundrum

TfL is also seeking to earn from developments on some of the 300 acres of land it owns in the city. By 2022-23, the property partnerships agreed between TfL and thirteen large property development companies in 2016 are set to generate £3.4 billion of income to reinvest into London’s transport system. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for further sites to be unlocked, to generate more funds and meet his manifesto commitment to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze single fare tickets throughout his term is estimated to cost £640m. Arguably, reneging on that promise could return £640m to TfL’s purse. TfL points to national rail services where fares are higher and the reduction in passenger numbers has been greater, and argue that the fare freeze blunted the drop in passenger numbers.

If TfL fails to find new ways to fund its network, more cuts to upgrade and capital programmes are only a matter of time. The agency has already cut its funding for streets, cycling and public spaces in London’s boroughs, and suspended its roads renewal programme and underground capacity upgrades. TfL’s reliance on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. To ensure London continues to have a world-class transport system, both Khan and TfL must urgently find new sources of funding.


Nicole Badstuber is Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

In January 2018, NHS digital published a report, which highlighted the accessibility and availability of digital platforms to help social workers with their job role. The research, which was compiled from survey data, sought to understand not only how social work could be supported through the use of IT and digital platforms, but also to assess the current level of usage and understanding of digital technologies among the current workforce. While more than half of survey respondents said they had access to a smart phone as part of their role, far fewer were actually able to access case notes and other necessary documents digitally from outside the office.

The survey found there was an appetite for greater and better use of digital media in day-to-day work, which practitioners felt would not only improve their ability to work more flexibly but could also be used to forge better relationships with people who use services. In some instances, respondents to the survey felt improved use of digital media may provide a way to communicate more effectively with those who had previously been unwilling to engage, particularly in relation to social work with young people. The research found that digital technology was used in a range of ways to build and manage positive relationships, particularly with service users, including:

  • communicating with them to gather specific data (as part of assessment);
  • delivering interventions (such as self-guided therapy or telecare); and
  • supporting team work (peer support and online supervision)

Questions around the use of social media

Earlier research around the use of digital media in social care more generally found that it is used in a variety of capacities, such as storing and maintaining records, communications and day-to-day tasks such as booking appointments and scheduling in visits. However, the use of digital technologies by social workers can at times extend beyond simply maintaining records and scheduling visits. Many felt that while digital media in some ways makes their job easier, in other ways it can add to the stress of an already difficult job role.

A lot of the anxiety concerning digital technologies centres around social media. In the most positive of ways, it can be a core platform to allow service users to communicate, and make the social work team appear more accessible to people who may feel uneasy communicating in more formal ways. However, significant challenges around ethics and practice remain. Repeated instances of social workers being reprimanded have made some social workers wary of using social media platforms. In September 2017 HCPC published guidance which encourages practitioners to continue to use social media, but to seek advice and help if they are ever unsure. The guidance suggested that social media, if used responsibly, could support professionals to raise the profile of the profession and network with others nationally and internationally.

Supporting confidentiality and security

For many social workers and social work supervisors many of the challenges around using digital media centre on the necessity for confidentiality and security of information. While much of social work practice within offices is digitised with regard to record and case file keeping and report writing, security issues concerning remote access to files is one of the major challenges. In many cases until digital security can be assured, it will be difficult for social workers to work fully remotely and flexibly without some travel back to the office. GDPR also raises some interesting questions for the profession with regards to storing and accessing data.

An opportunity to improve information sharing and partnership working

It is well recognised that the use of digital media provides an opportunity to improve efficiency and partnership working within social work. If used effectively and supported well, it can allow information to be stored, shared and accessed across a range of different services, which can be particularly useful for increased health and social care integration. However, challenges in practice remain – including the ability of social workers to remotely access notes and information, the need to align working and IT systems, and the ability to access and read data in a number of formats across a number of devices. Research stresses the importance of risk management and appropriate training for staff so that they feel comfortable and confident using media platforms.

A welcome change in the profession?

For many within the profession, the rise of digital platforms as a way to engage with service users and provide increased support and flexibility for social workers themselves has been a positive development. It is a great leveller and can encourage service users who feel comfortable to engage in a much more transparent way with social workers. However, NHS Digital research shows that there are still significant challenges. Overcoming these to successfully integrate digital platforms and interfaces into social work practice has the potential to revolutionise not only how social workers engage with service users, but how they themselves conduct their work. Improved collaboration with other services, increased flexibility, and increased capacity for completing and recording continuing professional development and training to improve practice are just some of the potential fruits of social work’s digital revolution.


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Learning to manage remote workers effectively

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by Donna Gardiner

As of last month, all employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service will have the right to make a request to their employer for flexible working under new Flexible Working Regulations.  Previously, the right to request flexible working was restricted to only those with children and certain carers. Continue reading