What a way to earn a living

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Travel, cost and emissions

Molly Pollock looks at how the legacy of Covid lockdowns could have a longer-term positive impact on the structure of Scotland’s rural population with a reduction in time and cost of travel and reduction of CO2 emissions.

by Molly Pollock

Lockdowns to repress the spread of Covid 19 can’t be said to have many upsides. Isolation, inability to socialise or see family members who are in care homes or hospitals. Life centred around the home with only occasional trips to shop or to shuffle outside for exercise to shed additional pounds from sitting around and eating to counter boredom. For many, working from home has become not only possible but the norm as the government sought to reduce transmission of the virus.

But lockdowns have had one positive impact: they have, according to researchers, driven the biggest annual fall in CO2 emissions since WW2. Globally, in 2020, emissions declined by around 7%, varying from country to country with France and the UK having the greatest falls of 15% and 13% respectively. In the main these falls were due to the severity of the lockdowns to combat two waves of infections. In both countries much of their emissions come from the transport sector.

The Scottish Government’s target is that by 2030 the equivalent of 50 per cent of Scotland’s heat, transport and electricity consumption will be supplied from renewable sources. Petrol and diesel cars and vans will be phased out by 2032 with investment in active and sustainable travel, doubling investment in walking and cycling to £80 million a year.

Welcome though the drop in emissions is, the figure will again increase as soon as the country opens up again and life returns to something akin to the way it was pre-pandemic. Are there lessons we can learn from our enforced isolation and home working? For many working from home isn’t possible, but for others are there reasons why it shouldn’t continue? Indeed should we be looking at ways to increase home working, particularly for those without ready access to public transport?

The Scottish Government is doubling investment in walking and cycling. Fine for city and town dwellers, but of little use to much of rural Scotland where public transport is infrequent and often non-existent, and cycling a nightmare on unlit, twisting, roads without pavements.

Rural Scotland is defined as settlements with a population of less than 3,000. It is divided into accessible rural and remote rural. A pdf – Rural Scotland Key Facts 2021 – giving further information on this along with relevant maps can be downloaded from here.

From this it’s clear that much of Scotland is classed as remote with only the occasional coloured splurge to indicate areas of greater population.

For centuries people from rural Scotland headed to cities and towns in search of work, swelling their populations, causing overcrowded housing and insanitary conditions whilst depopulating rural areas. The decline of the rail network and rise of car ownership along with rocketing house prices have, in recent years, seen a drift back to rural living, to places within easy travelling distance of work and where more house and garden can be bought within budget, and what is seen as a better quality of life for those with young families.

According to Rural Scotland Key Facts 2021 over 5.46 million people live in Scotland, with over 930,000 of them living in rural areas. Rural Scotland accounts for 17% of the total population in Scotland (6% in remote rural and 11% in accessible rural) and 98% of the land mass (70% in remote rural and 28% in accessible rural).

Between 2011 and 2019 Scotland’s population increased in all areas with the greatest increase in population in accessible rural areas – an 8% increase between 2011 and 2019, compared to an increase of 3% in the rest of Scotland.

Despite its attractions rural living can have its downsides with a greater monthly spend on fuel for cars (a necessity in areas without public transport), with around half of residents reporting to spend over £100 a month in 2019, compared to 39% in the rest of Scotland.

24% of people living in remote rural areas work from home; in accessible rural areas it’s18%, and in the rest of Scotland 11%. Of the 24% many are probably self employed with the rate in rural Scotland 40% compared to 11% in the rest of Scotland.

For many in rural areas an expansion of home working could:

  • save significantly on fuel costs
  • save time spent on travelling
  • contribute towards reduction of emissions
  • help increase rural Scotland’s population and retain more young people
  • provide new/expanded work opportunities with better pay for people at present self employed

A change in how many businesses operate could bring substantial benefits for businesses, employees and the planet as it could mean:.

  • less need for large office blocks in cities and towns as many employees worked from home. Offices could be substantially reduced in size, providing a hub where employees could gather on a weekly/monthly basis to be updated on progress, receive new instructions and socialise so that contact with other employees was not lost.
  • some redundant office blocks could be turned into housing to help alleviate the shortage.
  • with reduced employee travel time productivity could increase.

Of course this would be dependent on other changes. Those working from home would need more suitable surroundings than what they have probably made do with during lockdown. Proper office space and equipment. For many a dedicated room may not be possible. In this case small local hubs providing workspaces may be the answer. Homeworking could become local working with the advantage of minimum travelling and having others around to socialise with over coffee, lunch etc.

More home working and local hubs could help retain younger people. Rural areas have a lower proportion of the population in the 16 to 44 age range but a higher proportion of people aged 45 and over, especially in the over 65 age group.

Then there’s broadband. Over half of households in the rest of Scotland access the internet using superfast broadband. This drops to around a third in rural Scotland. In 2021 if we are serious about equality of opportunity and lowering emissions then this needs addressed.

Would businesses change their working practices so dramatically? Would they be willing to pay for the necessary changes perhaps with government help (incentives/grants)? Much probably depends on how they and their employees regard the lockdown working experience.

PM Boris Johnson has said that although some people believe we need to prepare for a new age in which people don’t move around, he doesn’t believe home working will continue. As soon as restrictions are lifted people will want to mingle and socialise he said.

David Solomon, the Goldman Sachs boss, has rejected home working as an aberration, unsuited to their work culture. JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon agrees with this, as does Barclays boss Jes Staley. However Lloyds Banking Group plans to cut its office space by 20% within three years, while HSBC plans a 40% cut in its office footprint. And Lloyds Banking Group said it plans to cut the amount of office space it uses by 20% within three years. Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have said staff will have the option to work from home permanently. So changes are afoot.

Whether businesses and people like change or not, change is coming if we want to save our planet. And we should be thinking now how to plan for it.