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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.