Before the pandemic, it seemed that increasing urbanisation was inevitable, and many saw this as a problem for the suburbs. They have been called commuter towns, sometimes pejoratively as “dormitory towns” or even as “slums” by Lewis Hamilton, in an off-the-cuff remark. As John Elledge wrote in the New Statesman, “Growing up in the suburbs, you’re constantly aware that the good stuff is always happening just over the horizon. Those railway lines don’t just carry commuters to London: they drain towns of their life.” Or a Barry councillor who said, “Unless we invent a new purpose for these towns, they will just become dormitories of Cardiff - that's just not good enough.”
I think the pandemic changes this logic. Being a great place to live for people working elsewhere is a new purpose. And I think towns that embrace this role in post-pandemic Britain can be more than good enough; they can thrive. I believe it’s going to be great to be a dormitory town, because such towns can become vibrant, diverse places with interesting high streets and a better social life.
In my industry – professional services – if you wanted a good location to raise a family while not limiting your career ambitions, you might choose to live in a town with good schools within an hour of the capital. There are acres of newsprint devoted to helping people find them. But do the sums and I wonder if people might be prepared to travel further if it were only twice a week. Put it another way, if you got a new job today – 2 hours away – would you move house and change your children’s school? I guess the decision might come down to whether you believe the pandemic changes become permanent.
I think some of the firms exiting their urban real estate altogether may be taking a premature decision: the future of hybrid working is hard to predict. Until we all try it together and undo the network effect that got us all on video calls eight hours per day, we won’t know if we’re going to the office twice a week or four times a week. But I’m pretty sure that industries such as professional and business services are not going back to pre-crisis patterns. We’ve made discoveries we can’t unmake. Getting in each other’s diaries at less than two weeks’ notice has increased the cadence of so many projects. It’s addictive.
OK, so some jobs might be performed remotely. But would those be enough to change the strategy of places which now find themselves inside the enlarged catchment areas for our economic hubs?
To analyse this, I worked with Hannah Malek from Faethm, a SaaS AI platform, which specialises in how job roles will change as a result of trends such as automation and other technology changes.
The right of the chart shows the roles which are most able to be performed remotely. At the top are the jobs least likely to be replaced by automation in the next decade. The larger the circle, the more people who do that job. And the darker the colour, the higher the pay.
Just look at the opportunity in the top-right corner: high paying, ‘remote-able’ jobs which are not going to be automated away in the near future. Workers whose disposable income could be spent locally. What are these jobs? Hannah’s made a list. They include professional roles in finance, legal or marketing.
Why don’t these sorts of jobs make the target lists of so many local strategists who all seem to be chasing the same green, tech, or creative jobs? These are, without a doubt, thriving and exciting areas of growth. But just as town centres need to accept that Britain doesn’t need 1,000 centres of experiential retail, they also do not need a silicon tech hub on every high street. And there’s another reason I think being a dormitory town could be a good strategy.
There’s inherent tension in boosting social mobility for professional careers. Too often it meant the brightest and best from towns left after university, never to return. That did great things for the diversity of firms in cities, and I’m proud of my own firm’s achievements in this area. But what if we could have both – improved diversity for firms and improved diversity of careers in those hometowns?
How? Well, if the catchment area for London commuting just got bigger, let’s turn that around. The labour market available to town residents also just got bigger. And more diverse.
I think that’s good for places. We know from our research with Demos that one of the things people value in towns is a less transient population. And if people don’t have to move to the city for their next career move, that could improve community cohesion.
Online shopping might potentially reduce the number of multiple retailers on our high streets. Another discovery we can’t unmake has led to a boost in the shift to online channels. Let’s not try and fight that trend. Instead, how could we make our high streets better for our new home workers? Out of home office space, filming studios or event spaces and more restaurants might be in order. Maybe there’s enough footfall for a more varied cultural offer?
Don’t take my word for it. Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, California, believes that urban centres “are not going to be the place of aspiration they used to be”, while “suburbs will become more interesting over time”.
Dormitory towns where residents came home tired and ate out in cities aren’t good enough. New dormitory towns with highly-paid remote workers spending their leisure time and disposable income locally? They sound great to me.
Mark Essex lives in Great Dunmow, an Essex town he chose because it was at the rural edge of a 75-minute isochrone of Canary Wharf. As a result of home working, he has quit his London gym, joined the local leisure centre, made new friends and eats out in town much more often.
Hannah Malek recently relocated to London from Sydney. Having originally intended moving into the thick of it, she prioritised greenspace slightly further out in South East London. Hannah loves the hybrid working model which has given her more time for running, cycling, and cooking with locally sourced produce.