Remote working can be a shot-in-the-arm for Wellbeing, Levelling Up & Strong Local Communities
Emma Hardy is the Member of Parliament for Hull West and Hessle and is also a member of the Treasury Select Committee. Simon French is Chief Economist at Panmure Gordon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has come at a huge human cost with excess UK deaths now exceeding 150,000. Long-COVID, surging inflation and public service backlogs all risk hurting the poorest in UK society. Yet despite these dark clouds, there is an economic silver lining waiting to be seized. Greater adoption and acceptance of remote working can be a shot in the arm for growing the UK economy and support greater economic dynamism outside London and the South-East.
As MP for Hull West and Hessle and as an economist brought up in Hull, we both see the potential for putting the city at the front of the queue of areas looking to exploit these new opportunities. Hull has an unmatched network of high-speed fibre broadband, a low cost of living, and a growing confidence as a creative hub. The local business community is enthusiastic in its support. In a remarkably short space of time, they have created a range of spaces across the city that enable a flexible approach to remote working, while also retaining full access to the usual office facilities.
A key lesson of the huge, unplanned experiment of remote working during the pandemic is that it has been able to go hand-in-hand with higher productivity. A recent study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) suggested a potential boost to UK labour productivity of nearly £59 billion by 2025.
But we also recognise that remote working needs to evolve. The issue of isolation, which proved a problem for some during lock-downs, means spaces need to embrace ‘co-working’. Sharing space with other remote workers allows for new connections and brings the benefits of cross-discipline knowledge, experience and fresh insights. Employers are rightly concerned by the impact on creativity and culture from remote working. This is one of the ways to address those concerns.
In Hull we have launched ‘Work Hull, Work Happy’ – an initiative born out of our shared desire to see Hull prosper. Its primary aims are to connect people with local businesses offering remote and co-working space, and to champion Hull as the Number One destination for remote work. ‘Work Hull, Work Happy’ recognises that success will involve key regional business, civic society, academia and politics working together.
Three potential benefits stand out. Firstly, an enhanced labour supply for employers. If the commuting constraint becomes less binding this will enlarge the pool of workers and skills. The easiest way to avoid punishing tax and spending decisions is to lift the UK economy onto a higher growth path.
Secondly, greater community and worker well-being. One of the reasons that the economic benefits of globalisation are under threat is the sense that local communities have been hollowed out. Younger workers moving away from their hometowns are leaving remaining communities short on social, financial and human capital. If levelling up is going to move beyond the soundbite stage, support for remote working needs to perform a central role.
Thirdly, the public purse is already under pressure to fund infrastructure such as roads, railways and housing – as well as the networks required to achieve net zero and energy independence. Moving and housing large populations as they move between regions is a costly business. Should remote working result in fewer infrastructure pinch points, all taxpayers stand to benefit.
There are doubtless challenges in making this revolution a reality. It is particularly important that adoption of remote working does not become the preserve of the affluent, experienced, service-sector class.
Finally, it would be naïve to think this won’t be a transition without pain for ancillary service providers such as cafes and entertainment venues in transport hubs and office districts. However, Governments that turn their back on creative destruction also turn their back on sustainable growth.
The right approach to remote working has the potential to be transformative for places like Hull. Many working-age people in Hull face the choice of adjusting their aspirations to fit what is available locally or leaving. You should not have to leave the town you love for the career you love.
11th July 2022
Managing Director, Chief Economist