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26 February 2001

Get a life, leave London

The capital is smelly and overcrowded. To escape it, become a teleworker

By Khalil Khairallah

What are we led to believe about London? It is at the centre of the world’s financial and cultural activities. It is the capital of “cool”. It is the culinary wonder of the world, and the shopper’s paradise. It is the seat of the meeja moguls, and the haunt of the jet set. It is the new Barcelona, the new New York. In short, it is so sweatily exciting that mere mention of a double-decker should induce bouncy and boisterous orgasm. And so I have left London for good.

Even cities can become victims of their own success. Londoners know what it is to wait half an hour for a Tube train and then be half-crushed by a coughing gaggle of commuters. They know what it is to find your nose clogged with soot after a short stroll; to wait three weeks for a restaurant table; to find out that it would take a Lottery win to buy a small flat, and even then to be gazumped. In fact, they know that hell is other people.

How does a young professional manage to live comfortably in London? An elderly friend of mine was able, on a journalist’s salary in the 1950s, to keep a splendid house in Mayfair and another in Hampshire. On top of that, he maintained a profligate wife, two ravenous children and a collection of rare-breed chickens. A half-century later, he would have been lucky to afford a priest-hole in Putney. A family-sized house in a smartish part of central London does not come for much less than £2m. Is it any wonder that anti-capitalists draw large crowds to their demonstrations?

The capital’s centripetal pull on money, talent and business is bad news for the rest of the country. There is nothing new about this demographic tendency.

But why should it continue when the information age makes it a crime against common sense? In the past, you got on yer bike and travelled to where there was a job available. If a company had an office in London and you lived in Truro, you had to move within striking distance of HQ or forget about the job.

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This convention is increasingly absurd, particularly in the service and information industries, where most communication can be done just as effectively without face-to-face contact. Few companies have so far gone down the route of exploring the complete alternative to the geographical trap – “teleworking”, where a “virtual office” is set up at the worker’s home. The telecommunications giant AT&T is one exception, with over a quarter of its global workforce teleworking more than one day a week. A recent AT&T employee telework survey calculated that the company saved about $25m in real-estate costs through teleworking. At the same time, reduced travel saved 4.1 million gallons of petrol, which equates to a reduction in air pollution of 41,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 93,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 180,000 tonnes of hydrocarbons and 1.4 million tonnes of carbon monoxide.

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Teleworkers claim to get more work done at home than in the office, and even put in more hours – on average, the equivalent of an extra six weeks over a year. Research conducted in 1999 by the International Telework Association & Council points out that the cost to employers of absenteeism and job retention expenses can be reduced by as much as 63 per cent.

Teleworking could solve the chronic overcrowding in London. Try to imagine the capital with a 25 per cent reduction in the number of public transport users, cars and people. The conventional thinking has been to provide more buses, more trains and more housing; but it would surely be much simpler to provide fewer people.

The demographic trend towards centralisation that has been at least two centuries in the making could now be reversed by little more than the modem. Thus anyone confronted with the possibility of exchanging a small two-bedroom flat in Balham for a castle and 200 acres in Banffshire, while still earning a healthy wage, would be tempted to relocate and enjoy a better lifestyle. Even at that distance, if a weekly commute were necessary – for power lunches, presentations and so on – the cheapness of flights from airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair makes this far more viable than it was a few years ago. For example, a flight from Glasgow to London can cost less than £10 – about the same price as a taxi ride from Victoria Station to Marble Arch. The implications for the regeneration of poor areas of the country could be enormous if relocations were encouraged in this way.

The government is slowly reacting to these possibilities. In fact, the e-commerce minister, Patricia Hewitt, acknowledged at the Telework 2000 conference last September that at least a third of the workforce in the UK should be working remotely, while eight out of ten companies currently don’t allow their employees this option. The next stage will examine how employment legislation and the tax environment can be adapted to assist and encourage teleworking. If in 20 years’ time there is a drop in passenger numbers in London commensurate with an increase in the national population of rare-breed chickens, the capital – and the country in general – will be considerably more human.

Khalil Khairallah lives in Aberdeenshire