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London, UK - Home-working - the new peasantry or a regenerative impetus for cities?

Can homeworking revive cities or does it herald a new feudalism?

In the UK, the number of people who are living and working from home, whether on a full-time or part-time, employed or self-employed basis, has risen dramatically.

These include not just creative types - the so-called ‘bedroom boys’ of digital visualisation, or writers based in garden sheds - but also employees of large corporations and people on benefits struggling to make ends meet by working for cash at home. For instance, British Telecom has increased its level of efficiency by reducing the size of its buildings and the rates of sick leave among workers as a result of its home-working economy.

The various dimensions of this trend, which is unsettling the fundamental home-office separation that has characterised the organisation of modern society and its cities, were surveyed and discussed in a seminar led by Frances Holliss, Director of the Workhome Project at London Metropolitan University. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of people working ‘mainly at home’ doubled, so what are the spatial and design implications?

Recognising the trend, the Coalition Government has approved a change in policy to allow social tenants to work from home - a shift away from existing planning and fiscal frameworks that set limits on home-working across the board.

Holliss and her team are to survey tenants of Newlon Housing Trust in Hackney, as part of a Connected Communities grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to discover how many social housing occupants already work from home. In particular, the team is analysing how Newlon’s hard-to-let housing stock might be refurbished to accommodate home-working practices in a visible and positive way.

But the research underlines the fundamental issue for home-workers: space. As Holliss observes, home-working only actually works for middle-class people with extra space. Housing allocation policies in the public sector, and minimum space standards in UK new-build housing, do not allow for home-working - at least not without high levels of stress and discomfort.

The Workhome Project is motivated by the conviction that home-working should be encouraged for environmental and work-life reasons. To encourage a reconsideration of the standard approaches to housing design in the UK and to facilitate home-working, it has produced a web-based system of types and design patterns as a resource for developers, builders and architects.

But the urban and social dimensions of home-working also need attention; it is not enough simply to lift restrictions on use. As Lucy Musgrave (Director of Publica) and Graeme Evans (Director of the Cities Institute, London Met) point out, home-based work has potentially significant implications for the social and economic revitalisation of neighbourhoods, particularly suburban areas, by keeping people in them, interacting and carrying out transactions locally, during the day.

Yet without consideration of appropriate mechanisms for promoting those interactions, we may, as Robert Mull (Head of Architecture and Spatial Design, London Met) puts it succinctly, end up with a more ‘divided, local and impotent’ society of isolated individuals locked behind closed doors. Rather than a driver of regeneration, this move would be ‘a new form of peasantry tied to electronic cottages’ - home-working out of desperation due to lack of other employment opportunities, rather than choice.

Workhome Symposium, London Metropolitan University, 16 February 2011

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