How flexible working can pay off in Hull – Emma Hardy

COVID has brought changes to the way many of us work and some of these will be permanent.

Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle. Photo: James Hardisty.

This is an opportunity to bring better prospects and wealth to many parts of the country which have been largely neglected for over a decade or more, but we need to be proactive to ensure that we make the best of the new possibilities.

Many businesses have found productivity has held up, or even improved, with a switch to remote working and are now looking at the cost of large permanent office space as an unnecessary burden. For those who can, an exodus is under way from big cities and from long and costly commutes.

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This move has seen rents in city centres like London, Manchester and Leeds fall, while they are on the rise in areas like Wigan, Keighley and Durham. Cornwall has made the news recently with only 62 properties available for private rental across the whole county.

How can home working help cities like Hull?

Hull is well placed to take advantage of these changes. It has had historically low house prices and is blessed with the best fibre-optic coverage and upload speeds in the country provided by KCom – a legacy of the far-sighted decision of Hull City Council in 1914 to purchase the network and create the sole municipally owned telephone corporation in the UK.

This has started to be recognised. Ricky and Naomi Willis, who blog as “Skint dad” offering finance advice and tips, moved to Hull with their family from Tunbridge Wells. After “years of being in debt, with credit reports that could make you cry”, they secured a mortgage on a house in Hull.

And, as readers of this paper know, they have found that the stereotype of the friendly northerner is based on reality. “Personally, I found the people to be really friendly. It’s like everyone’s your neighbour – the people make the place”.

Attracting higher-income earners to Hull has the obvious benefits of bringing additional spending power that will help lift the local economy. But I want to see these changes benefit existing residents.

Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle.

The flip side of cheap house prices means if you own a home in Hull, you can be trapped in a form of “negative equity”: that is, to buy the same property elsewhere will cost you more. The acceptance of home-based working means residents of Hull can now apply for jobs in parts of the country which they couldn’t afford to move to.

There are also reasons beyond the financial for people wishing to remain local: family ties; caring responsibilities; and especially for places like Hull, a sense of community and of belonging to a place.

I think this is a feature of places like Hull, and of others in the North, where many instinctively look at what is available locally and adjust their aspirations to fit. The new possibilities in remote working are a way of broadening horizons and opportunity while maintaining social cohesion and community.

So it is important that the move to home-working isn’t limited to those already in work who are able to negotiate it, but is also available to those applying for new vacancies.

Vitally, those looking for work need to be aware that these jobs are available. Hopefully, companies will recognise the benefits of being able to spread their net wider. Any form of encouragement from government would be welcome – certainly careers advice and Jobseeker support need to respond quickly to these changes.

However, not everyone has the space at home to work comfortably and successfully, and that is where new digital hubs and “hybrid” facilities can play a role. Such a space has recently been launched in Hull.

The former Midland bank on Whitefriargate, an imposing five storeys of iconic Yorkstone built in 1879, has been rechristened 55 Whitefriargate and is home to the head offices of Pagabo – experts in public sector procurement and consultancy – and three other businesses who are leaders in construction services and software.

This hub-space offers opportunities for synergy between them, and the new acceptance of digital remote working means that their customers, the UK’s major construction companies, can take advantage by utilising the facilities available on the remaining three floors for short periods.

The rise of hybrid working – where there will still be a need for face-to-face activity on occasions – means places like Hull need efficient and attractive transport links. The recently announced reformation of our railway system has a lot of heavy lifting to do in our area, particularly the trans-Pennine route between Hull and Liverpool which has been a bone of contention for quite some time.

We must be alive to both the advantages and the pitfalls presented by these new opportunities. Taking full advantage and ensuring the benefits are available to everyone will require foresight, planning and investment.

Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle.

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