Fixing the London problem: Policy and organisations' role

Can organisations create policies that ease the strain on London and prioritise other areas?

"When a man is tired of London he is tired of life". So said Samuel Johnson in 1777. But Johnson didn't have to contend with two-hour commutes with his face in someone else's armpit, or average one-bed monthly rents of £1,133.

Increasingly there are many today who are tired - not to mention priced out - of London. "London becoming hollowed out, where only highly-paid workers can afford to live and work here, is a real danger," warns King's College professor of historical geography David Green. "I have colleagues who travel from Exeter. I have one who lives in Berlin; it's cheaper for him to live there and do his job in London in two long days."

Take a look at those vital workers employed in London's NHS Trusts: recent London NHS Partnership data found there's been an 11.8% increase in the distance between work and home from 2010 to 2015, one factor undoubtedly contributing to enduringly higher nurse vacancy rates in the capital (17% versus 10% nationwide).

Director of HR and OD at East London NHS Foundation Trust Sandra Drewett is concerned about potential wellbeing pressures for those who do stay. NHS workers are more tempted to pick up extra 'bank work' near their own homes if facing long commutes, she explains. "I worry about people's wellbeing. If people do extra shifts in the same Trust we at least know what they are doing. It can be a stressful existence having to work extra just to make ends meet."

So what can be done? Much needs to happen at policy level, says London First's director of competitiveness and financial services policy David Lutton, particularly around upgrading transport infrastructure and easing housing supply pressures. But there are some things organisations can do, he says, pointing to businesses' role in London First's Fifty Thousand Homes campaign, which is designed not only to put pressure on government to double housebuilding by 2020 but also to spur businesses into action. Notable examples include KPMG's mortgage assistance scheme.

This is an area Rentokil Initial is considering, to combat the difficulty of filling vacancies in the South. "We may need to look at various different options in the future, such as renting a campus-style space where our graduates can live or providing help with loans to cover rental deposits," says HR manager Sharon Wands. There's also a growing number of innovative mortgage loan schemes - Stepladder for example - keen to work with employers in assisting workers onto the housing ladder.

The danger for public sector organisations particularly is depriving one borough to resource another, says Ben Morrin, director of workforce at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. This makes a joined-up City Hall-level strategy critical (something Morrin is currently heading up work on).

"A lot of people think 'pay' straight away but that's a mistake; the NHS is not going to have the ability to increase pay to catch up with growth in transport and housing costs," he says. What's needed are government schemes to subsidise accommodation and transport for key public sector workers, he adds.

A key role for London-based organisations is simply being in tune with and supportive of workers' stresses, feels Alex Arundale, group HR director of Advanced. She points to flexible working. "We need to find those mechanisms to reduce stress, whether that's more flexible working, coaching to deal with how people are feeling on a day to day basis... It's a challenge for every employer in the London vicinity. And I think there are many more things we can do."

Further reading

UK productivity: Rebalancing the regions

Rebalancing the UK: Organisations' role

Attracting and retaining talent up North