The pandemic has provided people with a glimpse of what life outside of a rigid office-based work culture looks and feels like.

local economies

In its 2019 manifesto the Conservative Party said it would be “levelling up every part of the UK,” recognising the increasingly unbalanced distribution of wealth and quality of life across the nation and the growing public dissatisfaction about it.

An Institute of Fiscal Studies report last year found the UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world.

Compared with 26 other developed nations, it ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. There are also substantial differences in earnings, wealth, health, educational attainment and social mobility across the country.

Making financial fairness a priority is a smart aim in theory, but I am not quite sure the Government has a clear idea about how the levelling-up agenda fits with repairing the British economy post-pandemic. Earlier this month, Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden told party conference delegates “to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.

His comments were swiftly followed by Boris Johnson appearing to suggest that everyone should get back into the office to avoid being the subject of office “gossip”.

I understand why this message is being hammered home – city centres with their coffee shops and restaurants lying desperately quiet, high street retailers whose footfall has plummeted, public transport networks still expected to run a good service but with a fraction of the ticket sales to fund it – the traditional British economy is designed around people commuting to urban centres to work in offices.

The pandemic has given people a glimpse of what life outside of a rigid office-based work culture looks and feels like. It means there is now an important debate to be had about whether we want to go back to that economic model.

Pulling people back into the office will serve to restore spending to those areas that have seen their streets empty as those who could worked from home. But to do this at scale will mean those same people stop spending in their local communities.

Having stayed with a friend in Gloucestershire over the weekend, it’s abundantly clear that small towns and villages have had life breathed back into them since the pandemic hit.

Riverside cafes, local boutiques and eateries could never have survived while more than half the community’s population was clambering onto a packed train to spend 90 minutes standing with their face in a stranger’s armpit each morning and not returning until late in the evening.

This is the thing about levelling up. To bring local economies up will have a corresponding cost somewhere else. The City of London’s loss is the Midlands’ gain.

Property wealth is a crude measure, but Rightmove’s September house price index indicates that for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, house prices across the all regions of UK have risen by an average of £6,000. Still lagging behind in this rapid growth, however, is London, where prices in the last year have risen just 2.6 per cent, compared to over 11 per cent in Wales in the same period.

For some, going back to the office will be right, for others, the option to support their local community has become more appealing.

(Story source: Inews)

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