A country with high regional inequalities, and an economy dominated by one large metropolitan area – the UK, you might think. But the description could equally apply to Ireland, where Dublin dominates the country’s economy.
Given these parallel challenges, it’s little surprise policy makers in both countries are working to increase prosperity outside the largest urban areas. While the UK government is aiming to reduce inequalities between places through its Levelling Up agenda, the Irish government is seeking to strengthen economies further away from cities through a programme called Our Rural Future. Many of the policies in these two programmes are strikingly similar, including seeking to revitalise town centres, rolling out high speed broadband, improving people’s skills, and investing in public transport. But alongside the similarities, there’s also a striking difference between the two programmes: their approach to remote working.
Remote working is front and centre in Our Rural Future, with the Irish government stating that “remote working has the potential to be transformative for rural Ireland”, allowing “more people to live in rural areas while working in good quality jobs, no matter where their employer is based.” The programme recognises that remote working can benefit not just individuals, but the wider economies of towns, villages and rural areas by enabling people to live, work and spend their money further away from urban centres.
Irish ministers have also publicly talked about the advantages of remote working. Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Rural and Community Development, has said that the benefits include “reduced commute, lower carbon footprint, more time spent with family and friends” and that “above all, remote working gives people a better quality of life.”
The commitment to enabling remote working to continue after the pandemic is further supported by Ireland’s National Remote Work Strategy. This sets out the policies the Irish government is adopting to promote remote working, including updating legislation, encouraging remote working in the public sector, and developing a network of remote working hubs called Connected Hubs. There are already over 200 hubs in this network across Ireland, and a unified system enables people to book any of them via a smartphone app. These hubs can deliver the benefits of being close to where people live, while also offering the advantages of an office space such as high-quality equipment, broadband and software, with the government recently announcing a partnership with Zoom to give hub users access to their services.
This is all very different to the attitudes of the UK government. Ministers here have been notably sceptical about remote or home working, with particular criticism aimed at civil servants over the last year or so (“people need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks”, as Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chair, put it). At Demos we pointed out in our response to the Levelling Up white paper that remote working was notable by its near absence, and the contrast with the Irish government’s approach is stark. While ‘remote working’ is mentioned just three times in the 332 pages of the Levelling Up white paper, it gets 77 references in the equivalent policy document setting out Our Rural Future. In the UK government’s white paper, the only references to remote working widening job opportunities come in the section on digital connectivity, which focuses on improving broadband and mobile infrastructure. This is certainly an important enabling factor, but there is nothing else in the white paper on how to help areas further away from large cities take advantage of the rise of remote working.
There are a few possible explanations for the different approaches the two governments have taken regarding remote working. Clearly there are some important economic factors to take into account: Ireland only has one large city (Dublin) and is far less densely populated than England. That means remote working could have greater benefits for Ireland, due to its more rural economic geography. But the potential for economic benefits in England is still significant: with remote working, it’s clearly much easier for people to live further away from large cities, spreading people’s spending power to the benefit of high streets and town centres across the country, particularly in the North and Midlands.
There also appears to be a difference in political culture. Politicians in Ireland have encouraged remote working in the public sector, while politicians in Westminster have tended to do the exact opposite. However, in England the rhetoric can somewhat obscure the reality: there is an ongoing programme to move civil servants out of London – which is likely to require some remote working – and even in the capital many government departments have implemented hybrid and hot-desking working arrangements. It may also be significant that the Irish government has adopted the language of ‘remote working’, while UK ministers remain perhaps more likely to talk about ‘working from home’, with its potentially negative connotations.
Achieving the missions of levelling up will be very challenging, as is clear from a long history of successive governments’ unsuccessful attempts to achieve similar objectives. In that context, it is surprising the UK government appears to be ignoring a trend which could make an important contribution to improving job prospects and increasing prosperity across the country. UK ministers can learn from the Irish government by taking a strategic approach to how remote working can support levelling up, starting with the development of a Remote Working Strategy for England, as Demos called for last year.