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Young creatives continue to flock to the capital, despite all the reasons not to

An enduring feeling of “cool” and a certain pack mentality mean that London is still the place to be for young and broke twenty-somethings.

The London skyline from Hampstead Heath
The London skyline from Hampstead Heath. Photograph: Getty Images.

For decades, the assumption has been for creative talent to move to the capital where the streets are paved of gold and “hot sex” abounds (thank you, Mr Gove). Think of pretty much any young, cool, creative person and you can almost guarantee that at some point they cut their teeth in the unforgiving metropolis that churns out hot new names faster than the government can milk them dry.

More recently, however, finding anywhere affordable to live in London surpasses the imaginative abilities of even the most creative Hot Young Thing. The average house price in London is now £458,000, two hundred grand more than the national. In the year ending January 2014, house prices in London went up 13.2 per cent; nationally, just 3.8 per cent. Earlier this month, a rather dilapidated 568 square foot garage that used to house the mayor of Southwark’s car, round the corner from Camberwell College of Arts, sold at auction for half a million pounds. That’s nearly £1,000 per square foot.

Renting, too, has become unaffordable. According to Foxtons, the cheapest rent that you can hope to pay in Hoxton - a former creative hub - is £325 per week. Why not move to the suburbs, where rent is far cheaper? Apart from the fact that Cockfosters hardly has the same urban appeal as Camden, a Zone 1-5 yearly season ticket will set you back over two grand. Add to this the fact that in Leeds, a city comparable to London in terms of nightlife and culture, the average weekly rent comes in at £170, and you can see why the young and broke might be looking elsewhere.

Alice Udale-Smith, from Bath, is in her final year at Cambridge and has been offered a place to study for a Masters in London. “I don’t have any family to stay with, so need to guarantee I’ll have enough in rent money for the year...unless I get funding I may have to turn [it] down.”

“I’d always assumed I’d end up in London after graduation, as I thought the majority of the media jobs I was interested in would be based there. However, on one recent job application I was given the option to express a preference for other cities and so opted for Bristol instead, as I think the south-west would be more affordable on a starting salary.”

Smaller cities also provide more opportunities for career development. Fergus Waddell graduated from Glasgow University three years ago and now lives in Edinburgh, working in advertising. “I suppose I always just assumed that I would go to London when I graduated before I got a job in Edinburgh . . . Most of my friends have gone to London.

“However now I am in Edinburgh I think that I actually get way more experience and responsibility than I would if I was in London, as it is a smaller pond really. I think that if I did move to London I would go in a year or so, because I would have much better experience than if I gone straight there.”

Beyond other UK cities, some people are even looking abroad. European capitals are no longer so linguistically inaccessible and living costs are far cheaper, with some countries, such as Denmark, offering free postgraduate courses for any EU members.

“I would consider other cities like Berlin and Copenhagen,” says Emily Cousens, currently studying for a Masters at Oxford University. “Both are far less focussed [than London] on a financial centre as the economic driver and so tend to have a lot more creativity and seemingly happier people with a higher quality of life,” she says.

The grind of life in an urban metropolis can certainly be taxing, and it is easy to see why people might go elsewhere. Ruth Broadbent, a Londoner, is a case in point. After graduating with a degree in English from Oxford University, she decided to move to Paris. “Maybe if it had seemed like I would be able to move out within a year of working I would have stayed, but that wasn’t going to happen”. Now back and living at home, Ruth is unsure of where to go next. “I would definitely consider the idea of living elsewhere,” she says, “But it would depend. . . on the extent to which I felt I could pursue any job option. . . most internships would be in London.”

Similarly, Emily still feels a “pull” to London, despite the fact that often, the “only viable options tend to be corporate jobs with long hours”.

“I think London is still cool in some ways. It is definitely still an extremely diverse and dynamic city. Whilst ‘hipsterness’ has sort of commodified and homogenized what used to be slightly more spontaneous and artistic expressions of creativity. . .there are. . .still some elements of ‘coolness’ that remain.”

Indeed, everyone I speak to agrees that London still has an inexorable appeal. Ruth talks hopefully about the growth in squats and co-ops: “Spaces for young people to work and play and live together”.

“I still see London as a cool place to live, as do all my friends,” says Ella Bruce, another recent graduate who is living at home in London. “We always have conversations about how we could never live anywhere other than London because, to us, it is definitely one of, if not the best, city in the world.”

London is expensive. It is hostile, difficult and dirty. It has one of the highest crime rates in the UK. And yet, people flock. The bright lights and dark clubs and dimly lit places in between seem to supersede any more practical, grey considerations and few young people genuinely imagine themselves elsewhere. Certainly, they will be pushed further afield, and even the phrase “the new Dalston” will become redundant, as people forget that Dalston was once cool and re-appropriate further forgotten suburbs. But the city will evolve, and young people will adapt. They are not tired yet.