At a time when cities are experiencing acute housing shortages, could a solution be found in the ruralisation of work?
In the annual lecture to the British Retail Consortium in June 2018 Doug Gurr, UK country manager at Amazon, identified one of the most important digital trends as a potential ruralisation of the economy.
Specifically, he said:
"Digital is creating opportunities to transform the rural economy, in contrast to the previous technological revolution. Every previous industrial revolution has tended to bring labour from the countryside to the towns. The current revolution could be the first one to start reversing that process."
It is hard not to agree with this assessment. Assuming that access to high-speed broadband becomes available in most rural areas in the UK over the next few years, why should digital workers not enjoy a much higher quality of life in rural or semi-rural environments? Sadly, there does not appear to be any sign of this trend developing soon. So, we must ask: what are the obstacles to rural development which could ease the pressure on big cities and lead to a revitalisation of the countryside?
Because my hobby is cycling I regularly find myself exploring the lanes, hamlets and small country towns of rural England. I was brought up in rural Somerset at a time when farming still played a central part in the life of that county, so I can also remember what it was like to live in a genuinely agricultural society. In the 1960s and 1970s the farmers in this area were still very prosperous and (although they were actively employing new methods, including pesticides and new-fangled farm machinery) farms were still an important source of local employment. On a normal day it was not unusual to encounter half a dozen tractors and other farm vehicles, even on a short journey. There was still a lively community life in the villages too. Most of them retained their village shops, post offices and petrol stations, and their residents could go for days or even weeks without going to the local town. I am not suggesting that this period was some sort of rural idyll. Indeed, it was already clear that rapid change was affecting the life of the country in many profound ways. And many of the villagers were already functioning, at least in part, as satellite communities to larger local towns.
Over the course of the last 45 years, the countryside of my youth has almost completely disappeared. Now on my journeys by bicycle through the lanes of rural England it is rare to encounter a tractor or a farm vehicle, and many of the fields are lying fallow and uncultivated. As for the villages, many of them are effectively ghost towns, even on weekends and public holidays. It is clear that many of the houses are now second properties or retirement homes, or that the entire village functions merely as a commuter hub. Most of these villages are without either a village shop or a post office, and most lack any reliable bus service. Nor does the medium-sized rural town offer a much brighter picture. In areas more distant from London such as Somerset and Worcestershire it is possible to find towns with beautiful Georgian architecture, town halls and market crosses which feel desolate and abandoned, lacking in any obvious form of industry or job prospects. Even picture postcard towns in counties like Hampshire or Oxfordshire appear depressed, and harbour under-recognised pockets of poverty and joblessness. I have been known to joke bitterly that these are former places, preserved like open-air museums, but lacking any signs of youth and dynamism. A few such places are able to eke out some kind of living from tourism or outdoor pursuits. Other rural towns are languishing as mere shadows of their former selves. Most have populations far lower than they did in the 18th Century.
Rapid change is clearly continuing to affect these rural areas. For instance, the number of delivery vans on remote country lanes indicates the way in which those living in the countryside are now fully integrated into the digital economy. Companies like Ocado and Amazon are undoubtedly making it much easier for people to obtain the goods and services they want, even when they live at the top of a remote valley, miles away from the nearest supermarket or shopping arcade. Even so, the number of these deliveries tends to reinforce the impression that rural life as such has almost ceased to exist and that people living in the countryside now consume in much the same way as the city dweller, merely having to endure much greater inconvenience in relation to their travel and shopping arrangements. Many of the fatal changes have occurred quite recently. I recently visited a remote village on the Two Moors Way in Devon for the first time in over 10 years, only to discover that, in the interim, the village shop and post office and the local garage had all closed, leaving members of the community completely dependent on their cars. A local farmer’s wife told me that villagers now have to drive 12 miles in one direction to the nearest supermarket, or 10 miles in the other direction to the nearest petrol station. Even the village pub has recently closed. It feels as though the heart has been ripped out of the community and that the wonderful rural community of 10 years ago has faded away.
So, the UK is full of attractive and under-occupied villages and towns at a time when the country is experiencing a severe housing shortage in the cities. The dominance of London and the south-east is also contributing to a hollowing out of communities in the rest of the country, and to grave imbalances in our society and economy. Amongst other things, these regional disparities are contributing to social divisions and to the perception of a metropolitan elite which is neglecting the interests and the traditions of communities all over the country. A rebalancing in the economy is obviously long overdue, and the digital revolution appears to provide the perfect opportunity to do so.
Which brings us back to the statement made by Doug Gurr of Amazon UK.
The digital revolution should surely reverse this apparently inexorable decline. More and more of us are now able to do our work wherever we have access to a computer or handheld device. Even meetings can now be adequately conducted on Skype or via other platforms. When I see packed commuter trains heading into central London every day I increasingly wonder how many of these workers really need to be commuting at great effort and expense to a centralised office space. It seems that our social customs of work and our corporate habits of control need to start catching up with the capabilities of our technology. Is there really any reason why the finance department of a major bank should not operate from the thatched cottages of a small Hampshire village? Or why the customer services team of a telecommunications company should not operate from a small rural town? And why should a rural hamlet in Shropshire not be the base for an online design agency?
The obstacles seem to consist mainly in our fear of a future in which managers are unable to observe directly the work of their team, or perhaps more importantly where workers are unable to enjoy the collegiate atmosphere and ‘watercooler moments’ which motivate many of them in their daily lives. In writing this piece I can almost imagine the shudders of consternation at the idea of an isolated rural existence of digitised cottages and of labour relations that look like piece-working in the 18th century textile trade or (even worse) a new form of digital feudalism. But does it really need to be like that? How many such jobs would it take to revitalise a village or a rural town? Might not such new patterns of work be accompanied, as in the Owenite model factory communities of the 19th century, by expanded opportunities for education and by a higher quality of life for everyone?
When researching this blog piece, I began by searching the internet for research into the possibilities for the ‘digital village’. I was surprised when my search turned up very little of substance. What work has been done on the topic tends to be concerned with the creation of high-tech rural campuses around the research goals of particular companies, something rather different from the ruralisation of work as such. It seems that the idea of the digital village is currently more of a corporate gimmick than a serious prospect. There does not seem to have been much of an attempt so far to research how the digital era might impact upon and potentially throw into reverse a century of urbanisation and migration to large cities. If there is, and other RSA members know about it, I would be very interested to hear about it.
Perhaps this is where we should start, with some intelligent and imaginative thinking about how work and quality of life, affordable housing and community, can be combined in a new kind of 21st century village in such a way as to reflect and take full advantage of our technological capabilities and our ecological priorities. It would be wonderful if, on future cycle rides through the English countryside, I could encounter vibrant and thriving new communities of digital workers and citizens, breathing new life into old cottages, and bringing new sporting activities to village greens.