10 May 2021

More Whitehall tinkering won’t stop the ‘brain drain’


Live local and prosper.

No, not a NIMBY Spock, but Boris Johnson. Setting out a key pillar of the upcoming Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister has responded to last week’s electoral victories in left-behind Britain/the Red Wall by doubling down on his manifesto promises to level up Britain by increasing the amount of well-paid work outside London and the south-east, and in doing so stop the ‘brain drain’ from our towns.

Alongside another Queen’s Speech pledge to build more houses, this one sounds awfully familiar. Making left-behind parts of the UK more attractive to live and work in is hardly a new concept – in fact it’s been talked about for decades and we’ve seen scant progress, whatever colour rosette the government of the day pins to its lapel.

The agglomeration effects of big cities are well documented – that’s why the Government wants to promote free ports, because they would bring new industries and businesses to areas like Grimsby and the Port of Tyne. Without pausing to consider the benefits of people moving away from home, the Prime Minister seems to also ignore the many pull factors that may see people leaving their hometowns.

One of those is the expansions higher education. The last 20 years have seen a steady growth in the proportion of young people entering university at 18 and, as the Augar Review into post-18 education funding noted, “leaving home to go to university is a deep-seated part of the English culture”. For millions of young people each year, moving away from your hometown in pursuit of education, culture, and frankly a bit of fun, isn’t a decision made because your hometown lacks high-paid employment, it is seen as a natural and inevitable part of entering adulthood. The Government’s plan to open up education and training to people wishing to study part-time may make it easier to gain skills but it’s likely to do so for people who aren’t able to move away to study, not encourage those who already plan to move away to stay put.

Another important pull factor is nothing to do with work, but what people can get up to after office hours. It may well be the case that young people could earn more if they leave their hometown and find work elsewhere – in April 2020 the median weekly pay in London was £716 compared to just £540 in Yorkshire and the Humber – but the cost of living is also higher, as is the likely standard of housing available to them. But young people may well choose to put up with such downsides because life in a big city appeals to them. The culture, diversity, sheer volume of people are all things that appeal to young people, especially if like me they come from a quite small, not very exciting town in the north of England.

The good news is the Government might not have to do anything to stop ‘brain drain’ – the pandemic may have done it for them. At least in the short term, the combination of home working and the continuation of social distancing are bound to reduce the appeal of living in crowded, shared accommodation. Why fork out hundreds of pounds every month to live and work in a multi-occupancy flat when you could stay put, rent or buy more cheaply and turn that spare bedroom you can suddenly afford into the perfect home office? As ever more business is conducted via video link, what does it matter if you are in Penge or Preston?

Rather than trying to engineer the economy, perhaps ministers should concentrate on improving education, healthcare, and housing across the country and let pseople decide for themselves where they want to live and work. More importantly we should be letting these towns and villages take back their freedom from central government. Improvements shouldn’t have to come from a central government grant to put new hanging baskets on the high street lampposts. Rather than endlessly begging Whitehall for a hand-out or a hand up, they should be kicking off the shackles of centralisation and embracing different tax policies, different housing plans, and tailoring their politics to the needs of their own community.

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Emma Revell is Head of Public Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.