It seems a long time ago – indeed it is by any measure – since the early days of lockdown across Britain, when commentators mused on the idea of the pandemic being ‘the great equaliser’. Practical experience soon made clear that the converse was true: those with a financial cushion, space, access to the outdoors, good technology and so forth were better able to adjust quicker.
Conversely, those from a low-income background (and therefore from minority backgrounds in a high proportion of instances) continued to work on the front line, putting their physical health at risk while others shielded or adjusted to working remotely.
On a different level, though, it has started to appear that the stress test of Covid-19 may provide impetus to a long-awaited regional equalisation across the country, which could only ever be realised gradually through top-down government measures such as HS2, financial benefits for companies opening offices in certain locations and regional affordable housing initiatives.
People’s experience tends to trump making fundamental life decisions on pragmatism or conceptual savings or perceived better quality of life. The fast development of remote working as the norm, the value placed on having space over location when considering housing, and people valuing local support networks (be it family to help with childcare or friends who they have been able to see as they are local) have all been given extra weight when establishing priorities and this will have an affect on workers’ decision-making about how they engineer the oft-discussed ‘work-life balance’.
Historically, a move away from London has been intertwined with a knock-on effect on income due to needing to move to a new job with a ‘regional’ discount on pay or having to work part-time due to geographical constraints. The gradual shift that had been happening in these areas may have been sped up significantly.
In many sectors, including financial services, white collar services and technology, a widespread workforce suits employers too. It negates the requirement to pile the same percentage of their cost base into expensive real estate (particularly offices), with a likely move towards smaller hub environments for vital meetings, periodic internal sessions and training and development exercises best executed in person. It also increases an organisation’s ability to attract the right talent by expanding their catchment area and freeing up cost to spend on an investment in people. Arguably also allows them to pay people less if costs of living and commuting are lower.
All of these factors suggest a likely redressing of the regional distribution of wealth and we are already starting to see evidence of that. Younger individuals who had been attracted to London and other urban environments because of work; willing to bear the financial pain of disproportionately high rent, travel, and other cost of living considerations, for the trade-offs professionally and socially (currently moot) have already started to explore different options outside of the traditionally commutable zones.
Companies in New York, for example, are already reporting a quick decamping of individuals away from Manhattan to far flung parts of USA seeking everything from land to better weather or air, with no intention to return. Logic would dictate we see a similar movement here.
In the regions, cities like Manchester and Leeds have had a difficult time from a public health and economic perspective but would hope to be better able to attract people to live in their exciting, young cities. Those rural areas hit by a lack of tourism (and a longer-standing drip-drip loss of young people and resultant sense of community) would make exciting places to consider for people who thought living in the Lake or Peak District was incompatible with certain jobs.
If the pandemic does lead to an easing of ‘the brain drain’, a more even spread of income across the country, which would be a silver lining desperately sought by those parts of the country hard hit during the pandemic.
The ultimate move may see a higher value and amount of thought from individuals, families and employers being placed on work-life balance mirroring the cultures of many of our European counterparts, which may not have been the development in 2021 that many expected, but would for many be a welcome and progressive one.