Escape to the country: Have cities lost their professional pull?

More people want to live outside the metropolis. But can they actually make it? Totaljobs director Ian Burke investigates

Moving to the city in search of your dream job has been a trope of cultural aspiration in the UK since Dick Whittington invented social mobility. But is the paradigm of seeking one’s fortune in the big smoke beginning to lose its lustre?

With property prices booming and Tube staff on strike, even the metropolitan-friendly Guardian have started extolling the many pastoral pleasures of leaving London for less hectic climes. But what proof is there of a compelling siren song from the Shires? And where does that leave our big cities?

Understandably, job opportunities cling to urban environments with limpet-like determination. Despite only taking up 9% of the UK’s land mass, cities hoover up 54% of the nation’s business and people - and a remarkable 59% of all jobs, according to the Centre for Cities think tank. It’s a simple, immutable economic fact that volume of population correlates with density of opportunity.

Moving out

New research from totaljobs finds a 12% increase in the number of people who would like to live in the countryside within five years. Whilst cities remain the most aspirational environment, there was an equivalent drop in the number of people wanting to remain in an urban environment to the rise of those hoping for a rural lifestyle.

There is a tradition of such exoduses in recent years, up and down the country: the quaint former mill town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire was transformed throughout the 1980s and ‘90s by a wave of gentrifiers, looking to escape the city and growing house prices. To the south, once-fading seaside towns such as Margate and Ramsgate have seen former city residents moving in, enabled by HS1 services improving connections to London.

The capital remains the UK’s most extravagant reminder of the excess of our cities and the differences between town and country. A localised phenomenon of families cashing in on spiralling London property inflation has seen a small boom in the number of properties sold for over £1m outside of the capital, mostly concentrated around the key corridors of the M3, M4 and M40. For many, such moves mean a commitment to commuting. However, the rush hour remains almost universally unpopular - more than 50% of those presently commuting don’t want to be in five years’ time - but it’s an often necessary bugbear of fleeing the nation’s cities.

Taking the work with you

With the potential cost of travel a barrier for many, escaping to the country isn’t without expense. But technology could be the saving grace for aspirations of a life in the country.

Cloud systems and high-speed broadband are freeing up our ability to work from home, wherever that may be. With mobile working, there’s no need to race like rats into a chrome-glass box full of WiFi and anxiety every morning; if you’re going to be just as productive and much happier sitting on the sofa, why travel?

The totaljobs survey also discovered an overwhelming desire for people to escape office work - with nearly a 47% fall in the number of people keen to stay in touch with the water cooler culture.

But to decentralise our office culture, for real change to happen, rural areas need their fair share of opportunity. Digital industries and remote working are one solution to enable these communities. Expanding the green economy is another - with innovations such as small-scale hydropower offering skilled jobs and regeneration to some of the UK’s most remote regions.

But does this mean that the cities of the UK are losing their allure? Regardless, London remains vaingloriously confident; outstripping cities both in the UK and worldwide in terms of popularity and industry investment. But there is huge potential across the UK’s regions to help fuel national growth - particularly if the government’s plans for a Northern Powerhouse and further devolved powers can drive more localised growth and, crucially, new jobs.

Ian Burke is Director of totaljobs

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