Patrick Cox’s patience with London snapped when he was charged £3.50 for a cup of tea. For Amy Everett, it was the overcrowded commutes on trains that broke down so often she regularly worried she might never get home.
The pair are part of a rising tide of Londoners moving out of the capital, revealed in new figures suggesting the popularity of settling in or returning to northern England has more than doubled since 2014. While in 2009 only 1% of people leaving London bought or rented homes in the north, in 2019 that figure reached 13%, data from the Countrywide network of estate and lettings agents shows.
Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle upon Tyne are seeing the fastest rises among northern cities in the number of escapees arriving from the capital, according to separate data from the Office for National Statistics, which indicates a possible shift east of the London escape route from the well-worn path to Manchester. Sheffield experienced a 12% rise in Londoners moving to buy or rent in 2018, followed by Newcastle and Leeds, which both saw 5% increases.
Dramatically cheaper housing – the ratio between house prices and income is 5.8 in Sheffield and Newcastle but 12.9 in London – is a key factor. But the lure of a slower, less work-focused and healthier lifestyle is also driving decisions to “escape the London madness”, as one leaver put it.
The figures are another sign of Britain’s shifting human geography, which could be accelerated by this week’s green light for the £100bn HS2 high speed rail line cutting travel times to northern cities and bringing Leeds, for example, just 81 minutes from the capital.
An insider’s guide to Margate
In 2018 London lost population through internal migration, with 340,498 residents leaving for other parts of the UK, while just 237,270 people arrived from elsewhere in the UK, ONS figures showed. Most go to to just outside the capital, but the biggest savings on housing costs are in the north. The average house price last year was £475,000 in London, £132,000 in Liverpool, £155,000 in Newcastle and £164,000 in Sheffield.
Everett, 30, moved to Sheffield from London in 2018. In the capital, her typical day involved two hours commuting on overcrowded trains, arriving home at about 8pm, eating a takeaway and starting work again on her laptop before crashing into bed.
“There was a sense of always having to be everywhere as quick as possible,” she said. “People were almost running. It was expected that if you are in London you are there for work and don’t have any interests outside of work; an always-on kind of attitude. I felt like I was burning out or on the verge of burning out very often.”
She went to the same coffee shop almost every day for the three years she lived in London, but they never acknowledged her as a regular. In Sheffield, where she now lives with her girlfriend in the Kelham Island area, with its independent cafes, restaurants and craft traders, “people get to know your order”.
“There is a healthier balance in Sheffield,” she said. “People prioritise things outside of work. Once it hits 5.30pm or 6pm, it’s time to get on with the rest of your life.” Simple things like the time to do a large weekly supermarket shop, the time to cook and to watch early evening TV quiz shows, have increased her happiness, she said.
Municipal leaders are trying to capitalise on the trend. Sheffield city council has been using the term “north shoring” to try to attract more employers to move out of London, promising considerably cheaper office rents, and the prospect of 20,000 graduates each year from its two universities. Leeds has attracted Channel 4’s new base, where 250 people have started work, and a new hub for HM Revenue and Customs is due to open later this year with 6,000 employees.
In the drive for attention, Newcastle is pushing ahead with plans for a new landmark on the quayside – a giant ferris wheel taller than the London Eye, the “Whey Eye”, and is hoping to attract businesses to the new 24-acre Helix science district focusing on green technology and solutions for the ageing population.
Cox, the founder of a male cancer charity who runs marathons in a giant testicle costume, quit London for Leeds with his partner three years ago. “My walking pace has changed,” he said. “Not swift brisk London pace any more. It’s a lot slower. The feeling that you are not getting ripped off is nice. Eating out is cheap. Curries are good. Ordering two beers and getting change from a £10 note is still an eye opener.”
He added: “I miss London, it’s the greatest city in the world if you can afford it. I get my fix when I visit for meetings, but I’m always glad to get out of Dodge when I am on that train back to Leeds.”
Young Lee, a Londoner who moved to Sheffield after going through rehab, said the Yorkshire city had “thawed my frostiness”. He had a stereotyped vision of the north as “an area of the country where it snows in summer, stuck in some sort of 1960s Ken Loach nightmare”, but he is a convert.
“People in Sheffield don’t appear to be as stressed or in such a rush,” he said. “When I pass people on the street they’re missing that manic, anxious wide-eyed stare I got so used to. In my new neighbourhood, people often say ‘good morning’ right out of the blue. Complete strangers have approached me in the park and started a conversation, which was strange at first.
“If Sheffield were an online media platform, I’d share, like and retweet it. I’d stick a huge heart icon where everyone could see.”
Three cities drawing Londoners to the north
Leeds With the buzz surrounding the arrival of Channel 4 and large-scale redevelopment that has transformed the compact city centre, Leeds has changed a lot in recent years. Though public transport still leaves much to be desired, if HS2 materialises, things are set to improve even more for the well-connected Yorkshire city. It has benefited from a thriving shopping scene, a revamped market, a vibrant cultural sector and a markedly more “bougie” feel for young professionals.
Sheffield The steel city has a flourishing alternative cultural and independent scene, with quirky quarters and significant regeneration under way since the financial crash. With the upgrading of the Moor Quarter and the gentrification of the west side of the city, trendy new businesses and cafes have thrived in Sheffield. The old manufacturing site of Kelham Island, which 15 years ago was derelict and ridden with problems, is now the cool place to be, boasting food halls and microbreweries, indie shopping, galleries and shipping containers.
Newcastle Creative and unpretentious, the city has a vibrant food, drink and arts scene. Boasting a completely regenerated shopping centre in Eldon Square and with loads of trendy craft ale spots, mini golf courses and axe-throwing bars springing up, Newcastle’s bustling city centre has become increasingly upmarket. The historic area of the Bigg Market, once known for disorderly behaviour, had a multimillion pound makeover and is now teeming with modish bars, businesses and restaurants among the old heritage buildings.
By Lucy Campbell
An insider’s guide to Margate