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The Future of Communities is just a Click Away

As part of Summix’s spotlight on the future of work, Lord Matthew Taylor advocates how creating new communities designed for the 21st century should be the vision for every plan

When I conducted the ‘Living Working Countryside’ review of rural planning in 2008, I pointed out the critical and growing importance of home-based work, fuelled by micro-businesses and professionals choosing to work from home, making use of the internet to minimise travel.

At that point, roughly one in ten UK workers were home based, but it was double that in the most rural areas. Mostly, this was traditional home-based work – but numbers grew steadily as more and more professionals set up on their own.

I had met many of these entrepreneurs and found they were often dynamic, ambitious individuals. However, they also valued a quality lifestyle - whether ditching the commute for a better environment and work-life balance or staying in the rural communities they had grown up in, rather than move or commute for work, as their previous generation had to do. In fact, I was one of them.

Unfortunately, this powerful opportunity to grow rural economies was stymied by a balance between limiting business opportunities or returning to the commute, all because planners would not accept that homes could accommodate an add-on office room to take on staff without having them at the kitchen table. Or, facilitating move-on space for businesses to grow within the rural communities, rather than the gravitational pull towards the urban business park.

I asked planners why they would easily allow an extension for a billiard room to a village house but refuse the chance for a secretary and a junior to have office space attached with a separate entrance, toilet and tea point.

By all means, refuse the noisy scrap yard with dozens of lorry movements, but why refuse the architects practice the chance to grow, when they are already living in the village and such quality employment for local residents otherwise meant a commute into town.

Working on final drafts of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), I did secure a change in planning guidance to a more flexible approach for rural businesses – one which asked whether the scale and impact of the business was appropriate, rather than whether it was a ‘rural business’ as such.

Still though, the bigger picture got less attention. Whilst the proportion of home-based employment continued to accelerate to 14% by 2019 (especially in rural communities), most planners continued to see work as based in work premises, and home-based work as a fringe occupation. Homes here. Work there.

I wanted to unlock the potential to allow more sustainable neighbourhoods to thrive and home-based businesses to grow. This was all in the vision I set out for Garden Villages in 2015, adopted by Government that same year as the Garden Communities programme.

As Chair of the St Austell Ecotown - now Carclaze Garden village - I was able to make this a central theme. Garden Communities were never about housing estates in the countryside. They have always been as much about jobs and enabling economic growth in 21st century - sustainable communities where work was enabled either from home or within walking and cycling distance of home.

Garden villages should enable rural businesses to find premises to grow in areas where their staff could find homes they could afford, with all the facilities for day-to-day living close at hand.

Taking the strain of growth off existing villages and historic market towns, new communities could be linked into high-speed broadband and sustainable living from day one.

It might take time, but its time was coming was my view. And then a revolution hastened that inevitability.

This vision of the future became the needs of today overnight in 2020 with the Covid lockdown. Suddenly, millions learnt to work from home - rediscovering the necessity and pleasures of local shops, parks, and facilities. We realised not just how much we hated the hours wasted commuting – but that the internet made it utterly unnecessary for millions of us. As lockdown ended, whilst old school managers and some politicians berated the ‘stay at home culture’, much of the nation seized the opportunity to change their lives for the better.

The data speaks for itself. The research commissioned by Summix shows that, post-Covid, the home-based employment rate is more than double the pre-pandemic figures. It has settled to 31% - ten million people. Over 80% of these are professionals and over the last year, this number is ticking up, not fading away.

These are professional workers, not low skilled, low-income work that was once associated with part-timers working at home.

Moreover, professional work is the driving force of the UK economy. The six million-strong growth in the UK workforce 2004-2021 was 80% professionals.

One in six of all UK workers is now a home-office based professional.

This should be revolutionising our approach to planning, with work and home-life remixed. Development should no longer be containerised into homes, business parks, office space. Instead, it should be welded back together as it once was, creating the vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods and communities that create genuinely sustainable communities.

Nor is this vision just about home-based work or professionals. There is nothing exclusive about enjoying quality neighbourhoods and local services. If this is to work for everyone, then development needs all the facilities for day-to-day living at hand for us all.

Shops, schools, leisure and recreation should all be within walking and cycling distance. We need to enable the most ambitious professionals to grow their own businesses – so that means ensuring move on spaces and modern premises are close at hand, with neighbouring homes for the workforce that can’t work from home, but also would like a vibrant neighbourhood and work nearby.

Yet, far too often, planning for development remains driven by ideas of homes in isolation, even with Garden Communities.

Politicians talk about the need for homes, rather than the need for communities that are catalysts of the 21st century sustainable economy.

Increasingly, however, a different vision is emerging - a vision of sustainable communities. Whether creating urban regeneration or extension, or new settlement, development must be a new amalgam of the best of traditional neighbourhoods and market towns with 21st century connectivity and quality of life.

With the right vision, it's all just a click away.

Lord Matthew Taylor

A former MP, Matthew has advised successive governments on planning and housing policy. In 2006-8 he conducted the Government’s rural planning review “Living Working Countryside’, which laid the foundations for the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework and introduced Neighbourhood Planning.