A Turning Urban Tide?

When talking about tides, people’s thoughts turn to holidays countryside and the incoming sea. But here we’re seeing a potential change in a long running trend for urban living. Urban is seen be the normal option and now accounts for 56% of the global population.

8% of the UK’s area is designated as urban; yet 83% of its population lives in those areas. Globally in the last half century urban living increased fourfold. But this trend has its roots in the First Industrial Revolution. Here coal, hydro and steam power created factories needing larger workforces than the simple workshop.

Economic Revolution Powered by People

Between 1760 and 1840, the First Industrial Revolution used new technologies to manufacture goods. This turned crafts into volume production. The application of science accelerated the Second Industrial Revolution and created mass production and industrial towns. The latter drew in rural workers no longer needed to work the land by hand.

Town became the place to be, where society happened and fashion followed. The size of the business became important with numbers employed and size of premises celebrated. This peaked with the onset of the Third Industrial Revolution of automation and the digital age. Here the focus is on more flexible agile businesses able to operate 24/7 if required.

Industry 4.0 takes this further with the potential for Smart Factories, IoT, machine learning and autonomous machines. The key individuals in manufacturing no longer need to be situated next to the machines; they could just be digitally connected. Technology has turned the 300-year tide.

Covid Accelerates the Trend

Watching tv, it is clear that the couples on programmes about moving to the country are typically older people nearing, but not in retirement. What has been hidden are the number of parents with young families also pushing this trend. The removal of the tolls on the Severn Bridge sent a surge of former Bristolians into properties in South Wales and the Forest of Dean as a perceived cost was removed.

Lockdown first time around demonstrated the ease of working from home particularly in an economy, which is predominantly service-based at 82% of the UK working population. (This ease of course excludes place-based service industries like catering and bars). For some working 5 days a week in the office is no longer seen as desirable or productive by the employee or employer. The rise of digital technologies enabled communication 24/7 anywhere there is signal or wifi. So an extra half hour on the commute into the office twice or three times a week is now seen as a fair price for a better quality of home life.

The New Race for Space

Zoopla reported a 68% increase in searches for rural properties in May compared to March 2020. Some areas such as Dartmouth in Devon (126%) and Monmouth (136%) were higher still. But Godalming in Surrey at 78% demonstrates that this was not a complete lifestyle change rather the desire for a little bit more.

Estate agents report the reasons given for searches and purchases include:

  • A garden space or access to garden space
  • Access to other outdoor areas
  • Perceived greater sense of community and separately fewer direct neighbours
  • Space is also an internal theme with the need for multiple discrete areas for home-working for the 2 parent/2 children family all on-line at work or in education and the need for noisy areas inside to let off steam.
  • Perceived reduced virus risk as fewer people.

In short rural is increasingly seen to be desirable, until obstacles like digital connectivity and travel may impact. But as the tide turns and the countryside balances increased population with its bucolic vision so the investment in and viability of digital and connected travel will improve.