Roger Ratcliffe accounts for increased capital flight

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More and more people are quitting London to go in search of a better quality of life. But where on earth are they finding this idyllic Shangri-la? Why, right here in the north of England.

According to Office for National Statistics number-crunchers, the rate at which Londoners move north has doubled since 2014. Many of them are heading for the main cities, with Sheffield registering a 12 per cent increase in escapees from the capital in 2018 alone and Leeds seeing a 5 per cent rise the same year. New data from letting and estate agents confirms the trend: in 2009 just 1 per cent of Londoners who fled the capital moved to the North West, Yorkshire or the North East, but in 2019 that figure reached 13 per cent.

Manchester has usually benefited the most from this south-north movement, which is a reversal of the historic direction of travel for northerners seeking bright lights and high wages that accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s. However, these new figures show that it’s now on the east side of the Pennines where post-London utopian dreams begin, thanks to lower rents and property prices.

I completely understand why people want to get out of London. I also followed the dream down the M1 from Leeds in the 1980s but soon found myself hating the journey to and from work by Tube, so much so that I spent my last two years there striving to find a way of getting back to Yorkshire.

Sure, London was fine for a while, mainly because I was just ticking all those sightseeing boxes like Madam Tussauds, the Tower, Kew Gardens, museums and galleries, and enjoying West End theatres and the buzz of places like Covent Garden, Camden Lock and King’s Road. But sooner or later the feeling of being a tourist on an extended holiday was erased by that dehumanising sardine-like daily grind to and from the office.

Then there was the unexpected feeling of claustrophobia that overtook me at weekends. Whereas in Leeds I had spent most of my days off walking or cycling in the Yorkshire Dales or North York Moors, the wide open spaces that London offered me were the same sanctuaries sought by thousands of other fellow sufferers, areas like Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park. The nearest uncultivated ground I could find in which to leave the crowds behind was a three or four hour drive away in the Brecon Beacons.

In a newspaper report about this movement north, people blamed London’s astronomical house prices and rents. They also cited the high cost of buying a round of drinks, which is definitely not an urban myth. These simply wiped out the benefit of higher wages that had lured them to London. But they also pointed to the fact that buzz areas like Covent Garden have become a common feature of northern cities. From Hull’s Fruit Market to Liverpool’s Albert Dock, new cultural quarters are popping up everywhere. So for economic and lifestyle reasons alone, more people are likely to move northwards than in the opposite direction.

Suddenly, I can see what motivates those politicians and civil servants in London who are foisting the HS2 rail network on a largely unconvinced middle and northern England. It is to make it easier for Londoners like themselves to escape to the north.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him onTwitter @Ratcliffe

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