Stemming the flow: How to reverse the northern brain drain


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Housebuilding is flatlining in the north of England. At the start of the year Homes for the North published new research showing the number of houses built in every city region in northern England has declined over the past decade compared to 35 years ago. This is in stark contrast to London, where exactly the same numbers of homes were built as in the entire ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

The lack of homes of different tenure is one of many reasons why the UK has witnessed a so-called ‘brain drain’ of talent moving from northern regions to London. Over the past decade, 310,000 highly qualified British resident workers have left the North with only 235,000 moving in the opposite direction. The challenge of retaining and attracting highly skilled workers does differ region to region. Metropolitan areas such as Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire - which are home to world class universities - fared much better at keeping hold of 18-34 year olds, than the more rural areas including, for example, much of the North East, North and East Yorkshire, Cumbria and Tees Valley.

If the loss of highly qualified workers had not occurred, the highly skilled workforce in the North would be 3.5% larger today than it currently is. This loss of talented workers puts business investment at risk with companies citing the availability of highly skilled workers as one of the main reasons when deciding on a location.

To date, the majority of northern regions have, to an extent, masked the problem to date by attracting enough highly qualified workers from outside the UK to fill the deficit. However, withcommitments to reduce the level of immigration into the country, we could see successful northern regions struggle.

The challenge for central policymakers, council leaders and the incoming Metro Mayors next year is to work out how to stem the ‘brain drain’. Housing can clearly play a role. The availability, affordability and quality of homes will be seen as an attractive option for many people. But a one size fits all policy simply won’t work. Each region needs to assess what sort of housing requirements it needs to attract a highly qualified and mobile workforce.

Over the party conference season Homes for the North will be holding fringe meetings and speaking to a number of Ministers, MPs, local stakeholders and council leaders to see what specific policies could be put in place to improve the overall supply and quality of homes across different northern regions. We were encouraged to hear that the Chancellor is aiming to put housing at the heart of his Autumn Statement, and we hope to produce a manifesto of ideas which could be practically implemented.

Rebalancing the economy so that northern regions are able to flourish is a noble goal that all politicians are signed up to. However, without a roadmap which seeks to address the outflow of talented workers, that imbalance is only likely to increase. Action is needed, and needed soon.

Mark Henderson is the Chair of Homes for the North, an alliance of the biggest housing associations in the North of England. Homes for the North will be holding a fringe event with John Healey MP at 9am on Tuesday 27th September. 

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