So is London really a drain on the rest of the country?

A sort of metaphor thingy. Image: David Blackwell/Flickr/creative commons.

One common complaint about London is that it acts as “a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country” – an idea expressed by Vince Cable MP when business secretary, and often repeated by others. But a recent Centre for Cities report suggests that this isn’t entirely accurate.

London certainly is a magnet for young professionals. Our Great British Brain Drain report looked at where students and new graduates move around the country and showed that London is attractive to high achieving graduates in particular. Despite accounting for 19 per cent of all jobs, almost a quarter of new graduates worked in London six months after graduating. This increased sharply for higher achieving graduates and was particularly marked for Oxbridge graduates, 52 per cent of whom found themselves working in the capital six months after graduation.

But if London does suck economic activity from elsewhere, you would expect to see those places closest to it doing the worst – and this isn’t the case. Previous Centre for Cities research has shown that many of our most productive cities are located close to the capital. And as our latest report Talk of the Town shows, some of our most successful towns are those located in its orbit too.

For example, the map below shows the share of people either unemployed or claiming long-term benefits in towns 2011 (the latest available data for towns). It shows that towns neighbouring London have the best employment outcomes, with places such as Basingstoke and Newbury doing particularly well.

Share of residents unemployed or in receipt of long-term benefits, 2011. Image: Centre for Cities/census data.

While commuting to London plays a part in this, proximity to the capital also appears to strengthen the economies of nearby towns by making them more attractive places for investment, too. On average, 22 per cent of jobs in London’s neighbouring towns were in high-skilled exporting jobs (those that are more productive and higher paid), compared to the overall town average of 17 per cent. And as the chart below shows, the share of these jobs tends to be lower for towns either close to weaker cities or in more rural locations, despite the cheaper cost of commercial space in these areas.

The economic structure of a town, proximity to a city and cost of commercial space. Image: Centre for Cities/2011 census data.

Towns close to London also benefit from the movement of higher-skilled people out of the capital. While there is an inflow of young professionals into London in their 20s, this trend is reversed for people aged from 31 onwards with a net outflow of this cohort, many of whom have a degree. Many of these people don’t move very far though, with over half of the people who left London moving to a town or countryside location in the Greater South East.

The concerns that Cable and others have expressed about London have also been applied to other big cities. For example, the Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry has suggested that the growth of Manchester and Birmingham is sucking the life out of their surrounding towns too. But our research shows that it’s actually their underperformance of both these cities that should be of concern for nearby towns, not their success.


Reflecting the experience around London, those towns close to successful cities tend to have better employment outcomes, in part because of access to jobs in the nearby city, and stronger economies in their own right. It is the lack of a halo around our less successful economies that is the problem. And this isn’t just bad for the residents of that city and the national economy as a whole, but also for the residents of nearby towns too.

As such, towns across the country shouldn’t be concerned about whether neighbouring cities are too successful – but instead whether they aren’t successful enough.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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