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The Only Way is Down: North - South Migration in England

Anna Begley, a Cambridge Human Social and Political Sciences student, muses on her complicity in the English brain drain as a student that has moved South.

It is October 2017 and I have just travelled 176.4 miles southeast from Warrington to Cambridge to pursue my undergraduate degree. Given my direction of travel, along with my knowledge of basic geography, I understand Cambridge to be a ‘southern’ university. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when on my first day of freshers I am promptly told by a number of classmates that this is the furthest they have ever ventured North and asked repeatedly, “isn’t it cold up here?” I laugh this off at the time, bemused that many of these students claim to be English yet have never even reached the Midlands.

It does not escape my attention, however, that the only train line any of us are using is between Cambridge and London.

A few weeks go by and I am plunged deep into my law degree: the schmoozing and socialising begins. I am invited to a number of law dinners with several legal firms and I enjoy the food, embrace the conversation and even travel to a couple of the firms to meet more employees and to understand the workings of the legal world. It does not escape my attention, however, that the only train line any of us are using is between Cambridge and London. Then it is time to start applying for vacation schemes – two-week work placements in law firms to help secure training contracts – and I apply all over the country: to Manchester, Leeds, Cardiff and Bristol (just to name a few). Meanwhile, my peers are applying predominately to firms with London headquarters, pulling on their Cambridge contacts to follow the already-established stream of Cambridge graduates to the most prestigious London firms. This seems like an organic process, and this southern migration becomes even more conspicuous when I try to catch a train home. At fairly short notice, I have the choice between two trains: a three-and-a-half-hour trip via London, or a four-and-a-half-hour trip in the direction I actually want to travel. This disparity in distance and time, shows quite clearly that London is the disproportionate epicentre of England.

I am often reminded of this in rather patronizing tones: Well London is the capital, Anna!! Yes, indeed London is the United Kingdom’s capital; but Canberra is Australia’s capital, Brasilia Brazil’s capital and Ottawa Canada’s capital and yet these are not necessarily the first cities that spring to mind when these nations are mentioned. Rather the important matter is not that London is England’s capital but that it is England’s commercial, artistic and educational hub so it tends to attract high achievers from the North. For example, some of the best universities are in the South and (excepting Oxbridge) in London, with the likes of LSE, UCL and King’s topping university league tables and attracting young talent from across the country.[1] There are an array of highly salaried job opportunities keeping graduates in the South. According to the Office for National Statistics, of 2.7 million new jobs created between 2007-2017, almost 950,000 or 35%, were created in the capital and likewise the average City of London resident earns almost double what the average UK resident earns in a year (£48,023 versus £27,531 according to the ONS).[2] Whilst these perks do not address the extravagant living costs, the extortionate house prices or the lack of countryside in London, they demonstrate the ‘bright lights’ factor of the big city that goes some way in helping to explain the ‘brain drain’ from the North to South of the country. This drain is clear in the annual net deficit of around 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving the North for the South in the last decade or so (according to the ONS).[3]

“Britain… is constructed on a slope, with much of the money and talent rolling towards Boris Johnson [in London].”

Despite my awareness of this trend and even my conscious effort to avoid this predicament, I regret to admit that I too have been lured in by the ‘bright lights’. After I graduate from Cambridge, with a converted degree in sociology, I plan on moving to London where I have been promised “all the best social research positions are based.” On deeper introspection, I realise that it is not just about the wage, or availability of positions, but the exciting potential London offers. This has been explained as the ‘escalator’ effect which points to the importance of career progression opportunities for students in London in particular.[4] This effect is most prominent in London, given its size, with the new graduate labour market there being over five times the size of second place Manchester.[5]

In light of this, what the North needs to challenge the dominance of the southern metropolis is economic growth. The 2010-15 coalition proposed the idea of building a ‘northern powerhouse’ to boost such growth in the North. However, the IPPR concluded last year that it has been held back by austerity measures.[6] That late trains have more than doubled over the lifetime of the northern powerhouse is evidence of a lack of funding. When contrasted with the £4.7bn rise in funds invested in the South, this is rather ironic.[7] This problem is nothing new, back in 2014 the English novelist and a fellow northerner Andrew Martin decried that “Britain… is constructed on a slope, with much of the money and talent rolling towards Boris Johnson [in London].” [8] Before the brain drain can be resolved then, the bias in Westminster towards their beloved capital needs to be addressed.

It is hoped that the arrival of the promised HS2 railway line, connecting London and the North, will facilitate the migration of people, businesses and markets away from the southern epicentre.[9] HS2 was, in fact, proposed with the intended goal of providing northern cities, such as Manchester and Liverpool, with an opportunity to benefit from their cost competitiveness and ‘quality of life’ advantage: making it easier for firms to attract and retain the talent that they need. Though with working from home becoming an increasing reality, I can’t help but think that this journey might be coming sooner rather than later - most likely on the four-and-a-half-hour train.


[5] Ibid


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