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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 July 2006, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
The new commuter belt
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Euro tube map

Fed up with over-priced cities and overcrowded trains? The new breed of commuters are going to fly into work from their homes in Spain and eastern Europe, claims a trendspotting report.

When you think of the commuter belt around London you don't immediately think of Barcelona, Marrakech and Tallinn.

But a future-gazing report suggests that we could see a new type of commuting - where large numbers of people work in the UK but live overseas.

High house prices, cheap flights, flexible working hours and e-mail and the internet making it easier to work from home are all set to combine to create a new breed of long-distance commuter.

By 2016, there will be 1.5 million people working in the United Kingdom but living overseas, using Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted as commuter terminals - predicts a report from the Future Forum, set up by travel firm Thomson.

So instead of grinding into work on packed commuter trains, people will be looking for a better quality of life in accessible, more affordable overseas cities, working in jobs where they don't have to be in the office each morning.

Airport commuter

There are already some people pioneering this way of working.

Carrie Frais
Carrie Frais lives in Barcelona and works in London

Carrie Frais earns her living as a television news presenter in London, but finds it better value to live in Barcelona, using budget airlines for her international commuting.

"I couldn't afford this quality of life in London - or else I'd have to be working every hour of every day. In Barcelona, you don't need as much to live on - everything from rent, food and clothes is cheaper."

With a minimum of a four-hour door to door journey, it isn't possible to make this a daily commute. So she travels for a few days' work at a time, staying with friends and family in London.

"I wouldn't recommend this life for everyone - you have to be independent and used to travelling. Some people might envy the lifestyle, but they could struggle with the instability."

But she says that it is already feasible to live in this way - and that with "a laptop, mobile and broadband" - you can create a virtual office wherever you are located.

There are other euro-commuters shuttling between Barcelona and London, she says, including lawyers, designers and people working in internet-based jobs. And people can get UK phone numbers to take with them so they can appear to be in Britain when they are abroad.

Not location, location

This isn't going to work for anyone who has a nine to five office job. But Frank Shaw, director general of the Centre for Future Studies, says that the rise in international commuting will reflect a decline in fixed-hours jobs.

Basingstoke versus Dubrovnik
The M3 from Basingstoke or the flight from Dubrovnik?

In the information economy, the growth areas for jobs are going to be about ideas, design and creativity - and working from home will become much more prevalent, says Dr Shaw, who contributed to the Future Forum report.

"Location is going to be increasingly less relevant," he says.

As such, rather than choosing in which part of town to buy, more people are going to start thinking about which country they want to live in - based on factors such as house prices, the climate and transport.

If people are going less frequently into their office, the radius of possible places to live is much wider. Globalisation already means that businesses operate across national boundaries - and it will become the same for employees, he says.

The trendspotting report, drawn up by a panel of experts in demographics, travel and technology (brought together by a firm with an interest in promoting travel), includes a list of hotspots likely to be in this international commuter belt - with Barcelona the current leading candidate.

Also on the list are Palma, Marrakech, Dubrovnik, Faro, Alicante, Verona, Tallinn, Pula and Valencia.

Trains, planes and house prices

Underpinning this international commuter belt is the availability of cheap flights. For example, if you book in advance you can get one-way flights from London to Barcelona for £15.99 plus charges. The standard day single by train from Basingstoke to London Waterloo is £15.40.

Eurostar train
Eurostar says new high-speed routes will increase commuter numbers

The report also predicts improved technology to get commuters through airports more quickly, such as fastrack passport swipe cards for checking-in. A "chip and go" passport will respond to the need for "quick, hassle-free travel", says the report.

International commuting needn't only use airports. A spokesman for Eurostar says that it expects cross-border commuting to become a much bigger market when the high-speed train routes between the UK, France and Belgium are fully opened next year.

This will bring the French city of Lille within 80 minutes of London. And with forecasts that house prices in the UK are going to rise by another 50%, the affordability of housing is going to loom even larger in choosing where to live.

But for anyone planning their new home in a charming French village or on the Mediterranean, there could be clouds on the horizon. Hikes in oil prices, taxes on aviation fuel and environmental pressures could threaten budget airlines.

And Dr Shaw says that flexible working hours depend on whether managers are sufficiently enlightened to allow people to work in this way - and that office culture as much as technology will have to change.

But at least it could make the excuses for being late more creative. Sorry I'm late. Traffic was terrible over Paris.


Here are some comments sent in response to this story.

Although it may sound extreme, this is actually a very successful way of managing a job based in London. A friend of mine in Barcelona has been commuting in for a couple of years now, working 35 hours over Monday lunchtime - Thursday afternoon in London and then going back home for Thurs night to Mon morning. It was tiring, but the benefits well outweighed the hassle. She recently switched to mainly telecommuting, with a week in the office every two months, and is having the time of her life. I have an even easier commute from Prague - the lifestyle here is fantastic, and as a writer, I only need to email manuscripts and articles to my editors, and occasionally pop over to London for a meeting. More importantly, the price difference allows me to continue writing - and to live well - whilst earning what would be a breadline wage in England. Sadly, I'm still one of the 95% of authors who gets paid horribly... The benefits of being in a place where life is about living rather than working are incredible.
Tim, Prague

I have more of a life in Barcelona than in London, it is not sad at all, I make less money and have a higher disposable income. My commutes to London, Paris and Munich are infrequent - only when its really necessary, as result, I spend less time on planes and in airports and more time talking to my customers. Most work is done with broadband and skype. As far as greenhouse gas emissions go - even if I didn't reduce my flights, just try comparing the winter heating requirement between the UK and Barcelona for both my home and the office I used to work from. Lifestyle is healthier, I do not need a car and on the weekend ... there is a beach
Rick Vieira, Barcelona/London

If Lille will only be an 80 minute commute away when the high speed train links are in place ... I'm going to start looking for an apartment immediately. At least I might have a chance of being able to get on the housing market there - I would have to get a mortage of 8 x my annual salary to buy a one bedroom flat in London ...
Jackie, London

I have been renting for six years now ... I cannot re-decorate, hide wiring or have built in furniture, I am unsettled, I pay more than my sister and her husband pay on their mortgage, yet cannot have a mortgage of that value as I do not earn enough. The only way I can afford to buy my own home is to look abroad. The plane will fly whether I am on it or not and so by taking my car off the road I will be aiding the environment not damaging it ... I am looking forwarded to moving and am awaiting acceptance on a small house in northern Portugal, from which I can commute to Manchester airport for three days each week, staying in a B&B & work from home the rest of the week! I can't wait, fingers crossed my offer is accepted!
Sam, Cheshire

We'll be moving to our home in France in January and I'll keep working in my current job. I work for a large multinational company - and although I have an office in Cambridge - most of the people I work with are in other locations. I'll have my computer, phone and equipment at home and work mainly from my home office coming into our Paris or Cambridge offices ever few weeks as needed. My commute time will virtually disappear when you take it over a couple of months. I'll also be able to have lunch with my husband and see more of my son than I can at the moment - and will actually cost my firm far less in overheads. I can't wait
EJC, Ware

I also commute between home in Scotland and work in Bergen, Norway, on a Monday to Friday basis. There are now a significant number of regular faces on the weekly flights. This is the result of experienced personnel in Scotland and Norway's enlightened attitude to a work/life balance. In fact I have a colleague that commutes between Barcelona and Bergen, based on a 4-day week. As mentioned in your article, it's not for everyone but does open to opportunity to work and live where you choose, the maximise quality of life.
Ian Harty, Aberdeen/Edinburgh

That life style is environmentally totally irresponsible. We can only hope for higher oil prices to prevent this waste and pollution.
John Kent, Lostwithiel

Planes are public transport after all! If more people end up flying to work then less cars are used being ... surely this would eventually balance out? If we continue on in this way of working, eventually more and more people will work from home therefore reducing pollution in the long run. It is perfectly acceptable for us to want a quality of life equal to those of our European neighbours!
H Garland, Edinburgh

Myself and my fiancé are moving to Berlin in the not so distant future. We have purchased a house in a very nice area of Berlin for 160,000 Euros; the equivalent house and area in London would be in the region of £600,000! From an economic point of view, the German economy is still depressed so I will have to commute to London on the Monday morning (depart 06:30) and back on Thursday evening (depart 20:10). I am sure it will become tiresome but what¿s the alternative? This country has a great economy but it has got to the point where it is so expensive to live that living aboard and commuting is a realistic alternative. Especially when the healthcare and education systems are on par or better than the UK.
Mark, London

One word - irresponsible. Global warming. Oil prices. Ozone layer. This world is dying and it's partly because people are doing selfish things like living in one country and flying to another to work. Please people, try to be satisfied with a life in this country or think about moving to foreign climes altogether, but don't try to combine the two.
Emma, Lincoln

My wife and I are looking forward to moving our house to the Cork/Waterford border. With two budget Airlines flying from Cork to Gatwick and the flexible working conditions at work make the idea feasible. We are buying a small farm house with wonderful views and the standard of life is much more acceptable. Bring on the move.
Peter Allingham, Horsham / Ireland

This style of commuting isn't workable in the long-term. In my experience, this kind of lifestyle can be done for a max of about a year and then it becomes very wearing and stressful. There is a constant haemorrhage of hidden costs eg bills, flights, complex taxation etc that reduce any saving you might make on housing costs. Maybe a more suitable new lifestyle trend would be for people to just rent? It's commonplace in certain European countries e.g. Germany for people from all walks of life to rent long-term rather than buying as they view buying as high risk.
M Brodie, Scotland

I spent four years working in Paris, spending four nights in a hotel and weekends at home in the Thames Valley. My total commute time was six hours a week, three hours each way, which included the journey to Heathrow and from Charles de Gaulle. Far less than driving up the M4 every day!
Nicholas Kieft, Florida, USA

I presently live near Bracknell in Berkshire but commute to work in Düsseldorf, Germany every week. My typical working week sees me leave my house on a Monday or Tuesday morning at around 6.30am and by 10.45-11am I am sitting at my desk. I travel back on a Thursday night usually after a full day's work arriving back in London for 7pm. Again by 7.30-7.45pm I can be sitting having a meal with my wife at home. I tend to work from home on Fridays and Mondays which gives me plenty of time to spend with the family. Time, which, if I worked in London, I just would not have.
Gordon Clark, Bracknell

All very well but what about the fuel used! If we all commute between London and Spain each week the planet will last for even a shorter time and the greenhouse effect will be accelerated; all a bit selfish if you ask me. I'm sure the sky will become more like the M25 every Monday and Friday! They should put tax on air-fuel so that these people pay for the privilege.
Paul, Cambridge

What a disaster for the environment. There could not be anything more selfish than 'commuting' weekly by plane. The sooner there is fair taxation on aviation, the better.
Joseph, London

I live just outside Colchester and commute to London every day to work - a friend at work lives in Toulouse and works from home every Friday. It turns out he spends less time commuting and about the same amount of money as I do!
Alex, Colchester

How very sad! Is any job really worth that amount of travelling and so little time at home? I work a 15 min drive or 30 min bus ride away from home. I could earn more, but I more than make up for that in lack of travel costs and a life!
Dave, Oxford

I have been doing Gatwick to Malaga commute for a year now...so far no major probs.
David Sutton, London

What about global warming? Aviation is the most damaging greenhouse gas emitter of all - this is verging on insanity - each person commuting by jet to/from Spain and Eastern Europe will be burning thousands of gallons of fuel each year. Do these people not care about the environment at all? I live six miles from work and I walk to and from work every day. - it takes me one hour and 20 mins - great way to keep fit.
Christopher Jutrzenka, Manchester

As a young postgraduate, beginning a career and looking to find my first home, it is proving increasingly difficult with the current house prices (let alone the expected increases). I am being forced to look further and further outside London making my commute almost unfeasible. I therefore think this is a great idea as my commute would stay the same yet I could afford the house and live well in better weather conditions. Just as long as I can find a job and/or manager that allows me to do this!
Tom, England




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