Is London a Drain on the UK?

By Adam Walker, Economics Correspondent

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A Northerner’s Perspective

London is an economic powerhouse, a hub of global headquarters and a melting pot of cultures, but is it a drain on the rest of the UK?

Recently there has been a lot of speculation and debate surrounding the question of whether London has a positive or negative influence on the overall UK economy with heavyweights such as The Times’ David Smith and Vince Cable contributing their own analysis. Research by the Centre for Cities think tank found the capital is “sucking” talent from the rest of Britain, with ten times more private sector jobs created in the capital than any other UK city since 2010.

Much of the argument against the capital has been focused on the suggestion that it draws much of the young professional talent and skills away from other cities and towns preventing growth in localised economies. If we want to ratify this imbalance, then we must ask why young people moving away from their home towns and relocating to London.

As a northerner who moved to London to start his career, I wanted to discuss my perspective and reasons for moving down to help shed light on young people’s opinions. I was raised in Liverpool and, up until the end of my secondary education, had never spent longer than a fortnight outside of the city walls. The multiculturalism, new developments and general northern friendliness to this day holds a very special place in my heart and will always be my “true home”.

So why did I not want to stay in Liverpool? It currently has one of the top ranking business schools in the UK, has some of the best social and cultural scenes in the country, lower property prices and generally a good city to live in. What pushed me away from affordability, long-term friendship and family ties into the economic ‘drain’ that is London?

Issues of Independence

Well firstly, like many young people, I needed to break free. Most children will spend the majority of their first 18 years of their life in the city they were born in and, as a result, are keen to explore other areas. As a society we have promoted independence in study, social situations, opinions and career choice so is it any small wonder that this culture of independence has affected how we view our home towns? Improved transport infrastructure has left the UK far more interconnected and the country is becoming a much more accessible place to live in, which means we have naturally begun to explore it more.

The fact that younger people are becoming vastly more independent and confident in their own abilities, when compared to previous generations, coupled with more affordable transport across the country has resulted in young individuals looking to create their own lives for themselves in new, exciting areas of the country. London acts as a very attractive target as it is huge, which can be both intimidating and intriguing, but it is also a hot-pot of financial giants, creative media groups, has historic culture and a nightlife to suit all tastes. Whilst many smaller cities tend to sample different lifestyles, London is big enough to accommodate and actively host them in different areas and therefore is more appealing to younger generations looking to leave home. The umbrella of ‘London’ is actually ten cities built into one.

The Times they are a’ changin’

It’s worth noting that our attitudes towards careers and lifestyles have changed drastically over the past few decades. Individuals are more reluctant to live prescribed lives and the notion of the family business and close family ties is becoming eroded; we are now offered a variety of opportunities and paths to choose from. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in London, where the sheer variety of locations, career opportunities and cultures makes for an attractive location to begin your own career.

Moreover, we have taken fantastic strides forward in female workplace equality and reduced sexism in organisational hierarchy has resulted in a great deal of women electing to pursue their own careers to enrich their lives rather than stay at home and start a family. So naturally a large chunk of the population is likely to be moving away from home with the aim of finding and developing different opportunities and projects.

On a similar note, more young people are choosing to have families at a much later stage in life and stigmas surrounding single men and women aged 30+ are disappearing rapidly. Whereas before there was a focus on achieving financial stability to support your family, individuals are now looking for more enrichment in their lives and careers through better work-life balances, more travelling, better social environments and greater responsibilities.

Whilst many older towns and cities (usually those heavily involved in manufacturing and resources) have suffered from these changes in attitudes, London has thrived and pushed forward with a multi-cultural, forward-thinking attitude that is attractive to younger generations. A service-based city with vast connections is naturally more appealing to the democratised youth.

London’s Identity

One of the most prominent aspects of London is how it is a diverse metropolis, rather than a specialist structure. It has enjoyed rapid growth because it has become home to several different industries, but this could be where Britain is missing a trick. Rather than compete with London, should the regions be specialising to boost growth?

For example, Toulouse in France now specialises in Aeronautical Engineering and is considered to be one of best areas in Europe to study and work in the industry. In Italy, Florence is a town of high-quality chemical and rubber goods production and Milan is considered the centre of arts and fashion in Western Europe.

China is a pertinent example of how specialisation can complement growth. Beijing is China’s Silicon Valley, Guangzhou specialises in fashion and Chengdu Suzh in design, with more cities looking to take on specialist industries to avoiding treading on toes. Unfortunately, where most other countries have towns that have adapted to compliment their metropolis, the UK’s cities are competing for the same spot whilst having fewer resources and much less space to do so.

Yet there are areas of specialisation where we have the necessary skill but lack investment from cities; luxury car manufacturing, high-end tailoring, architecture, design, film and television are all industries where the UK excels and has the potential to massively capitalise on (shown recently by the BBC’s move to Manchester). So are we able to take the necessary steps to become a functioning community of towns and cities?

London: Capital Idea or Capital Devourer?

As mentioned at the beginning, much of this article is taken from the perspective of someone who moved away from home to begin his own life rather than continue on familiar ground. I don’t think that London is a negative influence on the UK, I believe it is the natural centre for the services industry in this country and will naturally attract individuals looking to start something new.

Other UK cities should see this as an opportunity to build specialised industries to attract expertise. Bringing the economic underbelly that is manufacturing back to the UK will inspire young people with different skill sets to pursue specialities, rather than move to London to become part of the services markets. As university charges continue to increase, we could see a move back to skilled labour opportunities in industry pursued through apprenticeships and vocational courses, which would allow regional cities to grow alongside London.

I moved to London because its unique outlook appealed to me, but what if Manchester or Birmingham offered entirely different opportunities, rather than fewer of the same? I, like many others, could easily be persuaded to stay up north.

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