Thursday 7 October 2021

The Big Spatial Reconfiguration of Housing and Labour Markets?

Instead of - as I might have done previously - writing a long, possibly very boring academic paper on the spatial reconfiguration of housing and labour markets in the UK, I am instead going to write a relatively short, possibly only mildly interesting blog piece about The Big Spatial Reconfiguration of Housing and Labour Markets. What on earth am I on about? Well, let me explain, but first let me show you a map.

Think of these blobs as mega-commuter zones

Okay, let's begin. If you type 'housing and labour market interaction' into Google you should see some academic papers among the results. In fact, depending upon where you are in the world and how things pan out, you might even see a paper called 'The Spatial Interaction of Housing and Labour Markets' as the first result. This was written by my former colleague Ste Hincks at the University of Sheffield alongside Cecilia Wong at the University of Manchester. You can read the paper if you have access, but the basic idea here is that housing markets and labour markets have distinct geographies and they are not the same, usually. But, sometimes they interact and overlap in different ways, depending upon lots of things, like by income and occupation, by gender, life stage, in relation to transport infrastructure, housing costs and all those kinds of things. If you're really into the subject, and talk about things like spatial arbitrage at parties, then see Ste's more recent paper on the geodemographics of commuting. It's very interesting and has cool maps.

Um, isn't this just a long-winded way of saying some people live in Warrington so they can work in Liverpool OR Manchester? 

Yes, kind of. But the reason I'm writing this now is because I've been thinking a lot about these issues for years, and writing various papers on commuting and connectivity - among other things. I've also written a few things on the topic here, including a particularly badly timed '45 minute cities' piece in March 2020. Now, I know that the idea of the 'return to the office' is somewhat (very) exclusionary, but all the same lots of people do work in offices and there has been talk lately about the need to 'get back to the office', for a variety of reasons. I can see both sides to this, but my feeling is that we may, possibly, be witnessing the 'Big Spatial Reconfiguration of Housing and Labour Markets' - at least for a chunk of the population and parts of the country. 

What would this mean? Well, we'll see. 

In the meantime, I thought I would look at things from the perspective of what might be called The 2 Hour City. Freed from the constraints of having to live in daily commuting distance of the office of the old world (say, under an hour, or even the famed Marchetti's constant - 30 mins each way), what might things look like if people saw a 2 hour door-to-door commute two to three days a week as an acceptable compromise for a) options for a better place to live and/or b) more flexibility and freedom in the labour market? I'm not entirely sure of the answer, but what I did was plot the 2 hour travel zones around the three biggest English cities - Manchester, Birmingham and London. Let's have another map below and then I'll say more about it. It was James Blagden that got me thinking about this, as he's been doing a lot of work on the general topic lately.

The overlaps between areas are the brighter bits

The map above shows a zoomed in version of the original. Just to be clear, this is based on public transport only, and getting from door to door in 2 hours or less on a weekday morning by 9am reliably. Sure, you could do it from further away if you try hard but this is supposed to be a realistic, 'you can bank on it' commuter zone rather than a high stress 'will I be late for work?' type best-case scenario map. I set the arrival time to 9am, the maximum travel time at 2 hours - and this includes every part of a journey, including time for any connections where necessary, and the arrival point to the city centres of Manchester, Birmingham and London - roughly Piccadilly, New Street and Westminster. Or, as Gareth from the actual The Office might have said about the vagaries of such parameters, "different frogs, different times". As in the past, I used TravelTime for this (I don't work for them or take money off them!).

What's particularly interesting to me in all this potential spatial reconfiguring are two things - a) the absolute size of these areas in terms of population and b) the overlaps - where might people live if they want their household to be able to take advantage of new 'we only need you at the office two days a week' type working patterns in multiple labour market areas? I've used total population because I was thinking about housing markets first and how the new context has been shaping things (see Neal Hudson for more on this kind of thing) but you could of course do the same thing with jobs data (e.g. BRES). We know people were already doing this kind of thing a bit pre-2020, but if it became possible for millions more people, where might the optimal housing and labour market overlaps be?

Well, let's check the maps for the overlaps.

Hello Northampton!

Hello Crewe, hello Chesterfield!

Of course, I've only done this for three cities, so you can imagine what it might look like if I added in lots more - say all the big employment centres. We'd get one big overlapping blobby Venn and everyone would probably want to move to Kettering.

Here's another map, more zoomed in to the London area - note Reading in particular here. Note also places that are not red and then feel free to plug in a journey to Google Maps and see if you can get it to get you there - occasionally it says it is possible but in my experience mostly not, but either way, you know how commuting actually works. It's not safe to leave it tight and to be sure of a 2 hour door to door connection on a regular, reliable basis you need to be realistic and also you want to avoid any Olympic sprinting.

Live in Reading, work in Birmingham

Let's all come back in 5 years and see how this all pans out. My feeling is that the Great Return to the Office will be partial, patchy and prolonged. Possibly also painful. I'm out of that game now, and my commute involves about 15 stairs (I can't be sure of the exact number, will report back) and the careful transportation of a cup of hot tea up said stairs. 

Okay, go on then, one more map. The bright green spot is where you can do central Manchester and Central Birmingham within the 2 hour limit and the yellow is where you can do London and Birmingham.

Yellow bits can reach Birmingham or London

So, in the meantime, how might we know if The Big Spatial Reconfiguration of Housing and Labour Markets is actually happening. Well, we should find early clues in the most obvious of places, like in house prices in the overlapping areas. But might we also see jobs themselves move as a response? Maybe. Might we see more housing in different places? What might all this do to the geography of housing demand, the geography of housing markets, housing search (which I've written a bit on before) and all that. Again, wait and see.

I'd be interested in what others think and have to say about this too. Will we see a enlarged Hebden Bridge Megaregion? A Warrington Employment Megaplex? A Rush on Corby?

For now, only time travel will tell us how travel time changes in future.