Towns are the winners from Britain’s great urban exodus

Rotherham High Street. Image: Getty.

You may not notice it unless you or your offspring are university-bound, but every autumn brings with it a vast movement of people around the country as the university term begins. More specifically, it triggers an exodus of young people from the UK’s towns and countryside, as they flock to fill university campuses, most of which are based in cities.

Our cities rob the rest of the country of their bright young things. In 2014-15, 420,000 more university students moved to cities compared to the number going in the opposite direction. And this in part helps to explain why the average age of cities is four years younger than the rest of the UK.

But perhaps somewhat surprisingly, cities only see a net inflow of people in the 18-21 age group, and among 25 and 26-year-olds.  As the chart below from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town highlights, in every other age group, cities in England and Wales lost people to towns and rural areas between 2009 and 2017. In fact, over this period over 500,000 more people turned their back on cities than were lured by the bright lights of urban life – with the biggest contributor to this urban exodus being the 31-45 age group.

Migration by age in England and Wales, 2009-17. Source: ONS, Internal migration by local authorities in England and Wales.

And of these people who leave cities, a large proportion of them hold a degree. Data from the Census reveals that in 2011, 40 per cent of people aged over 16 who moved out of cities were graduates.

This varies with age. Cities saw a net inflow of degree holders aged 22 to 30. But this trend was reversed for older age groups, with 31-to-45-year-olds, in particular, moving out of cities.

Migration of degree holders to and from cities, 2011. Source: Census 2011. Data is for England and Wales only.

People’s decisions to move in or out of cities are influenced by their changing need for amenities as they get older. Previous research by Centre for Cities has shown that the main drivers bringing young people into cities (and city centres in particular) are access to jobs, transport and amenities such as restaurants and shops. These benefits are traded off against disadvantages such as smaller living space, higher levels of pollution and more limited access to green space.


But as people get older, the availability of amenities such as schools and green space becomes more important, and so a suburban or non-urban location begins to appeal more.

So yes, towns and rural areas lose young adults to cities as they head off to university. But they also see an inflow of higher-qualified people back into their areas, as those people’s lifestyles and needs change with age. The older average age of non-urban areas isn’t just driven by a loss of young people to cities – it’s also the inflow of older degree holders from cities too.

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

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.