I recently had to travel to Yorkshire on business, and doing so was like stepping into another world. Not being in London was a delight and a revelation. I love London and have lived "down here" for 30 years. My children are Londoners and proud. I view myself as an adopted Londoner and it felt personal when the great city suffered under terrorist attacks over the decades. After these I became defiant and determined, and deliberately went into the centre to show "them" that we are not scared. However, being out of the capital really brought home how different a world it is and how much I have become someone who lives my life differently from others.
In Yorkshire and elsewhere you cannot avoid having a conversation with strangers. In shops the staff chat to you without fear and every time you walk through a store door you get a friendly smile and hello. In London, this is not the norm. London is a focused place, where the focus is on getting to where you are going to, be it a place or a career destination. London is not as friendly as other places. I don’t think that is a controversial statement but simply a truth we all acknowledge.
Every charity I have worked for had its main, often sole, office in London. Back in the days before the internet (I am that old), and when pretty much the only way to communicate in depth was to meet face to face, this made sense. Media relations relied on knowing journalists and having the occasional coffee to build relationships. Political lobbying was all about being able to get to the Palace of Westminster, often to physically hand in letters for every MP. Even organising key events meant you had to walk around and find the venues rather than look them up online. Of course, charity overheads would be high and that was a shame, but that was the price of doing business.
I am now increasingly convinced that many, if not most, London-based charities simply do not need to be there. We can quite easily do business in another city. Our mission is not reliant on having an 020 telephone number or an appropriate postcode. Our fundraising can be done from pretty much anywhere and, of course, community fundraising is all about locality. But it is more than all of this. I think that being out of London might just be good for a charity’s soul. As a geordie by birth, I am biased, but the further north you get the friendlier people get. People are more open to a conversation for just the sake of it. There is less hard sell and a better focus on quality of life.
On a practical level staff would in most cases have an easier and cheaper commute to work. The average London commute is something approaching an hour and a half each way. That’s more than 700 hours each year that could be spent doing something else. I haven’t seen any work on this so it would be a good project to find out if there are differences between London charity staff and others. I guess at least that the former are more stressed and it cannot be because their job pressures are any different.
Is it time for our London-based charities to move location, much as they change in other ways? Doing so would save money and be a positive staff benefit. It would also help some organisations and people to be more in touch with the rest of the country, socially and politically. If we are less metropolitan, maybe we can be more in touch on matters such as Brexit.
Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is an independent consultant and commentator, and a former charity chief executive