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On your bike – but where to?

Authors: Dr Neil Lee Neil Lee

28 June 2010

On Sunday Iain Duncan Smith made headlines suggesting that unemployed people should move to more economically successful areas to find work. He argued that they are often " trapped in estates where there is no work. To go to work from east to west London, or to Bristol, or whatever, is too much of a risk, because, if you up sticks and go, you will have lost your right to your house."

Mr Duncan Smith is right to highlight an important problem: the housing system in the UK can be rigid. This makes it difficult for workers to relocate, and so prevents them taking up employment elsewhere. But beyond the practical issues of the effect on individuals, such a policy will have important implications on both the sending and receiving cities.

Economically successful cities tend to have an undersupply of social housing. We know from academic work in this area that high income areas tend to be better at preventing new housing development, and won’t necessarily like new social housing being built on their doorstep. So the problem isn’t just one of social housing, but the way we plan housing supply overall.

The implications for the sending city are perhaps more difficult. Who wants to be left behind? There are genuine concerns in some places that the brightest and most mobile will leave. The US has been dealing with the consequences of shrinking cities for some years, and has found no easy (or cheap) solution.

So while good in theory, there’s a lot of thinking to be done to make this workable. And it’s not even clear that this is a simple mismatch between supply and demand. In the slow recovery from a deep recession, even the most successful cities – such as London – have high levels of unemployment. The labour market is more complex than that - so it might not be just be a question of ‘on your bike’ but more a question of ‘where to?’


The Ideopolis programme at The Work Foundation will be examining this and other questions as part of the Cities 2020 research.

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