Roger Ratcliffe’s last column
in a brilliant 13-year run

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I didn’t realise it at the time but almost 40 years ago I was a work from home pioneer, although back then it didn’t have the funky urban dictionary acronym WFH. What a great way to earn a living, I thought. Everyone should work this way. I didn’t foresee its hugely negative consequences, of which more later.

My WFH lifestyle began after five years at the Sunday Times’ old offices near Kings Cross. Feeling the paper’s coverage was much too focused on the south I volunteered to be northern correspondent and moved to Leeds. But working from home wasn’t as easy at it is today. In computer history my PC was the equivalent of a stone age arrowhead. Fax machines and the internet were still a few years away.

When I felt in need of social interaction I walked round the corner to spend an hour working with pen and notepad in a greasy spoon that served instant coffee and stewed tea. The suburb of Chapel Allerton where I lived was a generation away from the hipster cafe bars in which WFHers can now be found hot-desking, liberated from their spare bedrooms by laptops and mobile phones.

It was Covid-19 that precipitated the biggest change to working lives since the first purpose-built offices were conceived three centuries ago by the East India Company. At the height of the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics, 30 per cent of white collar staff had become WFHers. When the lockdowns ended one poll found that 91 per cent of them wished to continue working from home.

That’s fine for people seeking the perfect work-life balance, but we can now see how WFH is changing city centres and impacting on the myriad businesses and individuals who depend on the daily tide of commuters. A frightening picture is already emerging in San Francisco, where a huge reduction in the number of workers going into the city has turned its financial district into a ghost town. WFH hasn’t had such a dramatic result here, but on a recent mid-week visit to Leeds city centre I was shocked to find how quiet were the streets compared to a few years back.

The WFH effect is exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, which has already seen big high street names go to the wall. One of the spreadsheet columns on which so many jobs depend is headed “Footfall”. Fewer and fewer people are walking across the thresholds, leading to downward cashflow predictions. This reduced footfall has also meant fewer buyers for Big Issue North and, sadly, led to its demise. The writing was on the wall for some time, with one vendor in Hull reporting last summer that the closure of a city centre Marks & Spencer had killed footfall in his usual location.

This leaves a huge gap in the northern media. It will mean less coverage of the region’s issues, something I cared so deeply about all those years ago. Under the inspirational editorship of Kevin Gopal, Big Issue North has shone a light on scandals like food bank dependency and pollution by water companies, and been a constant thorn in the side of the increasingly unconscionable Conservatives.

So next week’s Big Issue North will be the last. Please buy it. For the wrong reason it’ll be a collector’s item. Thank you for reading.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter@Ratcliffe

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