View from the street: London Falling?

@TomGillingham

View from the street: London Falling?

by Tom Gillingham

Predicting the demise of London always feels like a bit of a mug’s game. However, as a Londoner by accident rather than by birth, it hasn’t always been easy to truly believe Dr Samuel Johnson’s over-quoted mantra: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

This received wisdom is certainly being challenged by Channel 4’s ongoing deliberations about its move out of the capital, and the fact that the BBC’s presence in Salford continues to drive regeneration in Manchester and beyond. 

With this in mind, as well as the ongoing broader political uncertainty, is it time for another look at London’s status as the UK’s default communications hub?

London based media and communications organisations have several unique challenges to contend with. The ones that stand out to me include, perhaps surprisingly, securing the next generation of talent, the cost of living, and changing technology – and that’s before we mention Brexit. Set together, I would argue that they give ample cause for media-focused companies to consider expanding or refocusing operations outside the capital. 

First up, talent challenges. The graduate trail from the regions and nations of the UK to a first job in London has historically been a well-trodden one. After all, 50% of people living here are currently defined as graduates by the ONS, the highest proportion anywhere in the UK. However, as fees and living costs continue to rise, graduates are now emerging – blinking into the harsh light of the post university world – with record debts and changing expectations. 

Traditionally, this deep pool of willing graduates in London meant media organisations could find hordes of qualified candidates willing to brave ‘supercommutes’ (Margate isn’t the new Shoreditch) or squeeze into HMOs in the outer reaches of the transport network. But now, as millennials and their successor generations prioritise quality of life when making career choices, these same organisations struggle to convince them this is achievable in London.

Secondly, the cost of living for staff has a knock-on effect on the cost of doing business in London. While this challenge certainly exists elsewhere in the UK, it is an all-consuming one for workers and businesses in the capital. 

The primary driver of this cost is accommodation, and this is a double concern for staff members already carrying significant university debts. The most eye-catching excesses of the London property market probably don’t need much of an introduction, but the day-to-day reality is that often the rental deposit required for a small shared flat will be considerably more than a graduate’s first paycheck.

With many media companies having a younger-than-average workforce, the issue of affordability of housing in London should warrant a specific solution from employers. Many already offer season ticket loans to help with travel costs – why not do something similar for rental deposits?  

Finally, technology is changing what it means to go to work, almost regardless of sector. While videoconferencing hasn’t killed off the face-to-face meeting, there has been a gradual acceptance that remote working works. Whether it’s podcast hosts using suburban bedroom ‘studios’ to reach the nation, or communications consultants operating from shared workspaces, it is clear that technology is challenging the need for a large centralised office. This is particularly true in places with sky-high commercial property prices.

Even with all of these challenges in mind, there is always one final hurdle that us Londoners have to overcome. It’s sometimes hard to remember, when crammed into yet another sweaty Northern Line train, that far more people in the UK don’t live in London than do. 

In these uncertain times, understanding outside perspectives has never been more important. Simply by looking beyond London, media businesses can overcome their unique challenges and deliver greater value to their clients, and this is just as true for companies across all sectors.

So, if a modern-day Dr Johnson were truly tired of London, perhaps he only need remember that there is still a world of opportunity living outside the bubble…

Tom Gillingham is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners.

Having previously worked as an associate director in the corporate reputation team at MHP Communications in London, Tom has almost eight years' experience advising clients on media strategy, crisis response and stakeholder engagement. He specialises in developing and delivering successful integrated corporate affairs campaigns.