Hubs and spokes
By Joe Phillips
Back in the day…..
Not long having been out of university, like many twentysomethings with little money but plenty of debt, I moved into a flat share on the edge of the big city. Having got a job (of sorts, at least it was money), it meant adjusting to the daily grinding commute into the city, on the train at 7.30am, squeezing in before the doors shut, and then something similar on the way home. But most evenings towards the end of the week would mean staying out until late, and then getting away to somewhere else at the weekend. Where we actually lived could have been virtually anywhere, as in truth it wasn’t much more than somewhere to sleep each night. Sure, the flat was fine, and the location was too – the odd bar, restaurant and line of shops. But our use of them would be the exception, they really existed to serve customers that had long lived in the area, not for those us doing little more than passing through.
Fast forward about 15 years
With time, often comes family, and the old life is left behind. So for many, this means moving further out of the city again, to get a whole house with their very own garden, at a price they can afford. It’s a longer commute, but it’s not one which often involves scrambling to make the last train at midnight anymore. But in this new scenario, we now pay more attention to what’s on offer locally, at least at the weekend, because no wants to be on the train seven days a week.
Then along came Covid
The last 8 long months then brought a sudden change. The daily commute for 20+ miles has been replaced by one of 20+ feet upstairs to the home office. Working from home has become an everyday experience for many, and even during the Summer when the pandemic eased for a time, there was hardly a rush back of workers to the train. Thinking post pandemic, which now looks like a tantalisingly real prospect at last, what will office workers do? Will they all flock back to the office, mask free? Or will everyone have got so comfortable, and employers happy to save on office rents, that people stay at home? Like most things in life, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. Time will tell, but this could mean 2-3 days of commuting, and the same of working from home becomes the norm for the long term.
Reimagining the commuter belt
The impact of this long term shift is that the commuter belt now comes into focus, whether its the flat share 20 minutes away, or the owned house 40 minutes way. Satellite and commuter towns may no longer be poor relations of the big city down the tracks. Instead, they have an opportunity to be magnets for people that no longer use them as starting points for a journey, but as destinations themselves.
We have heard much over the last few months about how the pandemic has hit the creative sector, possibly harder than any other. But perversely, in the commuter belt, the creative sector may see a boost in the long run, simply because of this potential long term working from home lifestyle change. That means more demand from people who want varied options to entertain them, whether that’s during daytimes, evenings or weekends. Increasing a town’s liveability would also see a natural uptick in visitor numbers. These increased opportunities for towns would of course be at the expense of cities, and one may not compensate for the other, but it does suggest potential for a type of regional ‘levelling up’. It’s a reversal of the hub and spoke model, and one that we could well see play out in other ways due to Covid – for example, traditional airlines using the model are particularly under pressure, the same applies to manufacturing supply chains. Putting it another way: investors, residents, students and visitors are all starting to think more local.