Single Point of Failure

An empty high street in Dorset. Could we be doing something new with our town centres? Photo by Nick Fewings

The coronavirus has had a severe impact on the British economy. The lack of people going to work, and paying checks for the people employed by these commuters, has led to the British government pleading that people return to their offices.

You can’t force someone to go somewhere. Not for work or any other purpose. Over the past few months people have learned that they are able to work remotely, with many people working from home.

But working from home does have its downsides. It can be much harder to separate a work/life balance. If you have children or other relatives, time and space can become an issue. Yet people don’t feel safe to return to work. Some larger companies are supporting employees in working remotely well into next year.

What do we do about fixing what is apparently such a fragile economy? The solution is simple: Decentralise. Instead of having everyone commute into big cities on cramped train, buses, and road networks, let people commute to their town centres. This would have a wide range of benefits.

  • Help the High Street. Moving offices into town centres would revitalise high streets that for the past few years have been steadily declining, by making use of empty space for offices and amenity support, such as restaurants and convenience stores, for office workers.
  • Commute Safely. With fewer people taking public transport, there is less mixing of air. The smaller distances would allow people to travel by alternate means in the open air, such as cycling or walking. These means of transport are also healthier to boot (mentally and physically). And a commuter that feels they can travel safely is one that is more likely to return to the office.
  • Assist local lockdowns. Government has imposed local lockdowns recently. If this were needed again, many of the office worker that previously commuted long distances would only have travelled locally. this means that the distance of the spread of infection would fall, making local lockdowns more effective at catching viral spread in its early days.
  • Protect the economy. If the country’s economy is so closely tied to a London sandwich shop’s ability to sell a lunch to a commuter worker, it’s not just a virus that can have an impact. What is there was a flood, snowstorm, or disruption to key transport route that blocked many people from accessing the city centre? Diversifying where business is conducted protects the economy (and running of a country) should a lone source of productivity fail. This diversification is common sense in business, I am surprised the government is being so stubborn in ignoring that fact, virus notwithstanding.
  • Incentivise local development. There is a strong sense that much of the British economy may be damaged by all the power flowing into development that supports the big cities, or even just London alone. If towns across the country were each centres of business, that would incentivise governments to developing them, rather than forgetting towns and pumping more money into already successful cities, and maybe reduce the harm that comes of that.

The COVID pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, but disruptive periods are a perfect time for change, as everyone has new experiences with novel ways of working. Now is a wonderful chance to experiment with a different, possibly slower paced, more locally cohesive, and healthier style of living and working. It would be great to see this kind of change take place.

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