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Why I surrendered to the Northern brain drain

I didn't want to leave Leeds - but I felt I had no choice. More young people than ever feel the same.

October 19 2023, 13.12pm

I’m on my knees wiping dust off the skirting board. I’m cleaning my bedroom more thoroughly than I’ve ever cleaned it for myself, because I really need to get all of my deposit back. Later, I will return my keys to the letting agent and blink back tears on the drive down the M1. It’s October 7th, the day I leave Leeds for good.

I lived in Leeds for the best part of seven years, since relocating there for university in 2016. It sounds clichéd, but I was instantly smitten with the place; it wasn’t long at all before it became ‘home’. There was so much to love: the out-of-this-world arancini at Sarto. The coffee at Kapow. The alpacas at Meanwood Valley Farm. The cheap cocktails at Headrow House. Woodhouse Moor on a summer’s day. Harewood House in December. Call Lane on a Saturday night. The docks. Roundhay Park. Hyde Park Picture House. I could go on.

In another life, I might have stayed in Leeds forever. But it felt like it was time to leave for London. In recent years, I’ve felt the capital pulling me down towards it like a magnet, with reasons to move quickly stacking up. My office and colleagues (and any future opportunities) are in London. My friends are increasingly concentrated in London. Evidently, there’s always fun stuff to do in Leeds and its neighbouring cities, but it all pales in comparison to the sheer volume of cultural offerings in London – and it doesn’t help that it’s so hard to get around the North anyway, a problem which won’t be solved any time soon now that Rishi Sunak has announced the scrapping of the northern leg of HS2. And so, I decided to leave.

I say ‘decided’. But when you drill down into it, my reasons for leaving are largely shaped by circumstances out of my control. My office is based there because London dominates the media sector: 52% of journalists are employed in London, compared with 16% of employees across the whole economy. For the most part, my friends are there because their jobs are there, too. You might think that the normalisation of working from home that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic might have given young Northerners the chance to stay up North, but the ‘remote work revolution’ appears to be running out of steam. According to figures from LinkedIn, remote job postings have decreased by 28% since August 2021, while a number of companies are now insisting their employees come into the office – largely because it’s difficult for bosses to shake the assumption that ‘traditional’ ways of working are best.

There are always things to do in London, too, because it gets all the money. Analysis published by thinktank Onward found that London received nearly five times as much spending on culture as the rest of England between 2011 and 2018. Plus, it also helps that the public transport actually works in the capital, so it’s possible to travel miles in a matter of minutes – a stark contrast to the situation in Leeds, which is the largest city in Western Europe without a mass transit system.

“It’s depressing to think that many young Northerners don’t feel as though they have a choice when it comes to moving away.”

I’m not alone in my decision to move to the capital in search of better prospects. Research published in May revealed that almost half of 16 to 21-year-olds in the North expect to move from their hometown in search of better employment prospects and another recent survey discovered that more than four in five 16- to 18-year-olds say they need to move from their areas for better opportunities. You might think regional university cities would be able to combat regional inequality by retaining their graduates, but 22% of 2019 graduates were working in London six months after graduation.

Why do so many young people move to the capital?

Simple: jobs,” explains Alex Niven, author of The North Will Rise Again. “We live in a radically centralised economy where almost all the major industries are either predominantly or wholly based in London. If you live outside of the South East, if you want to pursue a career in any given field, and if you’re not one of a very lucky few able to find gainful employment close to home, you’re going to have to uproot yourself and relocate to London at some point, either temporarily or permanently.”

It’s not uncommon for individual industries to have a natural epicentre – anyone hoping to go far in the fashion industry in Italy, for example, would probably base themselves in Milan. What’s less common is for almost every industry to have its base in the same place. “As a country, we are almost unique in trying to power a modern economy through only a small number of sectors within a single region,” explains Annabel Smith, head of place & practice at the Centre for Progressive Policy. “This results in a lack of opportunities for young people outside of the capital, meaning people are forced to leave their home regions and support networks in pursuit of the high-quality employment that should be available to them at home.”

“There is a brute economic explanation for this [...] as everyone knows, the money is mostly in the capital,” Niven explains. “After the collapse of industry in the late-twentieth century, large parts of the country, including the North of England, were pretty much left to rot while the South East was built up as a centre of finance and other service industries – which doesn’t make sense economically in the long-term, and is one reason why Britain is now hurtling towards national decline.” Things have only got worse for the North since the austerity era: Leeds City Council lost £266 million of government funding between 2010 and 2020 alone. In the same time period, Manchester lost £372 million. Liverpool, £436 million.

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that so many young people flock down south. But this is hardly sustainable. “Having so many regions unable to fulfil their economic potential has major implications for our economy as a whole, and in being able to raise the tax revenue to adequately fund public services such as healthcare, social care and education, resulting in a vicious cycle of low wages and an unhealthy, unproductive population,” Smith says.

Plus, it’s depressing to think that many young Northerners don’t feel as though they have a choice when it comes to moving away. David*, 25, is a music writer originally from the North East, who moved from Manchester to London last December. He says he relocated to the capital largely because of the lack of prospects closer to home. “There may be a handful of opportunities in the North, but the infrastructure – the people around these jobs, the places to potentially ‘move horizontally’ if things don’t quite work out in one industry – simply isn’t there in the North, and it is in London.” Laura, a 24-year-old journalist from West Yorkshire, feels similarly. “I wanted to be a journalist and pretty much all of the advice I got said that London was the only place to go,” she says.

As Niven says, there’s “an exciting side” to moving far away from your point of origin, and “lots of people embrace it”. For David, his career is going from strength to strength, and he says he does enjoy living in London. “I did feel like I ‘had to’ move, but at the time I didn’t mind much,” Laura adds. “It was exciting to be in a huge city and I loved it.”

But many don’t feel quite so enthusiastic about moving, especially if they’re being wrenched away from support networks, friends, and family. “People in the North who want to find gainful employment often don’t have much choice in the matter,” Niven says. David also acknowledges that he does miss home. “After university, lots of my peers had the opportunity of going home to cultured, well-connected families in areas with stuff to do. I simply did not,” he says. “It was a choice between moving home, or having a life and a career in music.” Laura adds that she thinks about moving back to the North “all the time”, and how much better her quality of life would be at home. “The nightlife is better, the cost of living is much lower, and everything is closer together,” she says. “But the lack of career opportunities and public transport – I can’t drive – stops me every time.”

Knock-on effects for Londoners 

The “massively overdeveloped” capital is bearing the brunt of the housing crisis, with demand for accommodation far outstripping supply. “The picture is more complex than simply pitting London against the rest of the country: very high poverty rates in some areas of London are a testament to this,” Smith says. “It is about the need for an approach to economic growth that focuses squarely on who gets to contribute to and benefit from it, not just where it is generated.”

Of course, the government has acknowledged the stark North-South divide and is attempting to reverse the damage done by pursuing their ‘levelling up’ policy. “It is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire [...] for too many people, geography turns out to be destiny,” Boris Johnson said in a speech in July 2021. “We will give you the tools to change your area for the better.”

But actions speak louder than words. In March, it came to light that less than 10% of the ‘levelling up fund’ had been spent, two years on from its launch in 2020. Even where money has been spent or plans have been announced, there’s a sense that politicians based in and around London don’t really understand what it’s like in the North. Hartlepool was promised a “TV production village”, which is undoubtedly welcome news, but locals are largely more concerned with having buses that show up on time and better quality homes. Besides, it’s hard to believe our government genuinely cares when Sunak scrapped HS2 without so much as consulting Northern mayors – a decision which Manchester mayor Andy Burnham described as one of the biggest political betrayals the north has ever seen – and Lee Anderson, Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, quipped that nobody wants to go to Bradford (the fifth largest city in the UK) anyway.

Evidently, there’s no quick-fix to the issue of ‘levelling up’. One TV production village will not reverse years and years of austerity and underfunding. But that doesn’t mean there are no rays of hope. The BBC has had a new base in Salford since the early 2010s; more recently, Channel 4 has opened an office and permanent newsroom in Leeds – benefitting not only the local economy, but also providing cheaper office space for the businesses themselves. Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, continues to work tirelessly to establish the region as a hub for the creative industries.

“This is paying off, with the region seeing a 17% increase in jobs in the creative industries since August 2022 and there are similar trends in other northern city regions,” Smith says. “The government can support young people to stay up north by stepping back and enabling local leaders to do what needs to be done to support growth. They need to have the tools and the trust to leverage the best of their places through wider and deeper devolution.”

Ultimately, though, this isn’t an issue which is going to be “meaningfully tackled without large-scale reform at government level”, Niven says. “Which is one reason to be politically engaged and support radical reformist tendencies in local and national politics, thin on the ground though these are right now.” Above all, we should all take the issue of regional inequality seriously. We need to stop talking about Greggs and Pret and start talking about why the suicide rate is twice as high in the North East as it is in London; why one in three children in the North live in poverty; why people born in the North can expect to live lives shorter than the national average

As Niven says, “too often, even on the left, regional inequality is framed as a sort of Blur vs. Oasis, North-South ‘beef’, as a kind of football rivalry.” But, he adds, “this isn’t just some kind of regional squabble.” The cultural and economic disadvantages faced by young people from the North are backed up by an overwhelming amount of shocking data, and they’re real, urgent and serious. It’s time we treated them as such. 


*Name has been changed

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