Live-work gathers pace

Growing numbers of people now work from home with huge potential benefits to the economy and the environment but policy-makers are failing to pick up on the trend, argues Huw Morris.

Planning was about to scour the UK for people to comment on the benefits of working at home. But then I asked my colleague, the magazine's consultant editor Bryan Johnston.

He performs his duties from his Cheltenham home, thereby avoiding an energy-sapping three-hour commute to Planning's offices in Hammersmith, west London, whether by bus, rail or car. At the end of the day, he would face another three-hour trip back. That makes six hours in his day that can be put to better use than crawling along congested roads or waiting for trains. Put another way, he does not waste 30 hours of a working week driven by deadlines.

Johnston is not alone. Tim Dwelly is the director of the Live-Work Network, which represents anyone with an interest in a combined workplace and home, and he reckons that a revolution is under way. With it comes a simple message - it's time to stop building for a world of work that no longer exists.

Already, 12 per cent of the country's workforce works from home and 41 per cent of all businesses are home-based. If the UK is serious about meeting carbon reduction targets, then homes will have to double up as workspaces. Simply making cars, homes and offices more energy- efficient will not deliver the benefits needed if the UK's work patterns are still rooted in an industrial age.

Dwelly makes the obvious point that anyone who commutes between home and work is more likely to pollute than someone who combines the two in one premises. However his argument is more subtle. Having a quiet, clean and safe zone for homes and a noisy, smelly, polluting one for workplaces is a hallmark of the industrial era. In this technological age of broadband, the knowledge economy, iPhones, video conferencing and online commerce, the paradigm is well and truly shifting.

The movement is detailed in a report published by think-tank the Smith Institute. Its arguments cut across several policy agendas. Ministers pontificate about work-life balance when people are increasingly looking for a work-life blend. Any economic upturn will partly depend on a motivated workforce - and what better way of inspiring staff than letting them have more control over their working hours.

Nationally, live-work is supported by the draft PPS4. Indeed, writing in the report, Treasury adviser Kate Barker says local authorities should be encouraged to include live-work developments in their plans and look positively on well-founded schemes. She argues that authorities must have clear criteria, particularly for the proportion of buildings classified for business use, while larger schemes should have a hub or advice centre.

Moreover, planning authorities should not to be too prescriptive about the types of business occupying the development. Potential noise and client visits may well pose problems, but it would be better to have a set of guidelines and decide each case rather than block whole use classes.

The report points out that national and regional policy still focuses on investment projects creating large numbers of jobs, a potential rod for communities' own backs. The microchip projects of the 1990s perished in the vagaries of a global economy, slinging thousands of people across Tyneside and Fife on the scrapheap.

The collapse of the coal industry, the fall of car factories and even today's banking crisis offer salutary lessons when communities depend on a single major employer. Instead, the report backs live-work quarters as a low-carbon option for employment sites. Policy-makers should look at helping these micro-companies hook up with each other.

Yet not for the first time the government's aim of building three million homes is a problem in itself. This assumes that they will be homes and not workspaces. Regional spatial strategies are placing these homes in towns and cities in the belief that they will be close to jobs. But the report argues that this is mistaken as more and more work and sales are made online, irrespective of location. According to Dwelly, the emergence of high-quality video conferencing in the next few years will cast serious doubts over why we are still "herding people towards places where they do not necessarily need to be to make a contribution to the economy".

Furthermore, social landlords are also proving to be a barrier through tenancy agreements that prohibit the use of their property for business, a situation that the report describes as "another hangover from the industrial age". With high numbers of social housing tenants out of work, potential access to self-employment is blocked, leaving "whole swathes of property in the UK effectively enterprise-free or at least enterprise-discouraged". This state of affairs, the report argues, is "a tremendous waste not only of tenants' own potential but of millions of publicly subsidised buildings".

"The government has plans to build three million homes, mostly within commuting distance of London, plus huge amounts of office space," says Dwelly. "Instead of building for the old world of work, it should plan for property that includes workspace, led by new communities. Social housing providers' ban on working from home also needs to be changed, enabling people to work as well as putting a roof over their heads."

- Can Homeworking Save the Planet? is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.


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