Why the North Of England Is the New London
Over the last few years, we've seen the beginning of a dramatic transformation in northern cities.
Leeds. Sheffield. Manchester. Liverpool. Newcastle. The north of England is experiencing something that it hasn't seen since the end of the industrial revolution.
It all seemed to start with the Northern Powerhouse. While at first this movement looked to be a slow burner, over the last few years we've seen the beginning of a dramatic transformation. Investment in local infrastructure, faster internet speeds and more advanced transport systems, among other things, have resulted in a surge of businesses moving to the north of England in search of greener pastures.
Businesses such as the BBC, KPMG and Burberry have all opened large offices in the north in recent years. Even the U.K. government announced it will be bringing 6,000 jobs to its new regional hub in Leeds. With moves like this, it really poses the question, "Is the north of England the new London?"
Why the north?
One of the leading factors in the devolution of the north of England is investment. A large number of Chinese investors have been involved in regeneration projects across the north, most notably in Manchester and Sheffield. But, it's not just the Chinese that are keen on investing in the region. Research suggests that investment in the northern tech sector is growing faster than anywhere else in Europe, at a rate of 619 percent between 2012 and 2017.
This combined with government-backed initiatives such as NorthInvest and the Digital Enterprise scheme will help transform all aspects of the northern economic landscape, from the wider business scene to local communities.
Cheaper operating costs
Did you know that Leeds ranks first in Europe on value for money of office space? It's no secret that commercial property rents have skyrocketed in the capital, experiencing a 70 percent increase between 2011 and 2015. With an average cost of £68.50 per square foot of office space in the City of London, versus just £30 in Leeds, the savings available to businesses up north really shouldn't be underestimated. For a 10,000-square-foot office, that equates to savings of over £400,000. It's a similar story in other northern cities, too, with an average price of £35 per square foot in Manchester and just £24 in Sheffield.
The north of England is home to more than 25 universities, boasting some of the best learning institutions in Europe. With well over half of graduates staying in the same city upon graduation, there really is an abundance of talent available to employers. As more students choose to avoid the extortionate house prices of the south, the northern talent pool will only continue to grow. Events such as online job board Herd's 'Leeds Digital Job Fair' can be the perfect place for businesses to reach this talent and find their next great employee.
Key members of the government are also keen on encouraging investment in upcoming northern talent. Chair of the Northern Powerhouse, George Osborne, recently published an article highlighting the importance of educating young people up north. He talks about how Drax Power Station welcomes more than 13,000 visitors each year, many of whom are students and young people, to learn about energy and career opportunities in the industry. He even states that every northern business should "work with the same number of young people as they have northern employees." Movements like this will play an integral role in the future of northern talent; particularly in sectors such as manufacturing and engineering, where the industry is worth £7 billion a year to Yorkshire alone.
As Osborne highlighted in his Northern Powerhouse speech, a connected north will be crucial in the region's development. There has already been huge investment in northern transport systems, most notably with the HS2 project, a new high-speed rail network connecting the north with London and the midlands. And as home to half a dozen international airports and the largest tram system in the U.K., the north has a fairly solid transport system as it is. But, if the recent calls for £100 billion of investment in transport for northern England by 2050 become a reality, this system will surely reach heights that the northern population could only dream of. Other projects such as the renovation of Leeds Train Station and Manchester Airport will also be instrumental in moving the north's transport systems on to the same level as London.
Did you know that the majority of people in several parts of London have slower broadband than the national average of 17 Mbps? In contrast, the north of England is home to nine (and counting) "Gigabit Cities" -- cities that are home to future-proof, full-fiber infrastructure in order to introduce broadband speeds of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) to its population. The commercial rollout of this project has already played a huge role in the growth of northern cities, with hundreds of businesses now having access to super-fast internet speeds. But, as CityFibre continues to roll out fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) alongside mobile network giant Vodafone, the north will take huge steps ahead of London in terms of connectivity.
Home to several major cities, numerous sandy beaches and thousands of acres of beautiful countryside, it's no surprise that the north of England is becoming a hotspot for tourists. Travel giant Lonely Planet even listed Leeds as one of its top European destinations in 2017.
This boost in tourism is largely down to investment in the north, with countless shopping centers, museums and other popular attractions opening across the region. And with proposed schemes like Dakota's new luxury hotel in Manchester or Leeds's plans to double the size of its city center, it seems that the north will only grow in popularity as a tourist destination.
There's also been a huge increase in the number of activities and events in the region, really helping to shape northern culture. From business conferences such as Prolific North Live and Leeds Digital Festival to consumer-facing events such as the Thought Bubble Festival and Bradford's Curry Awards, there's never a shortage of things to do.
What will the future of the north look like?
Fast forward a few years. The gap between London and the north will only continue to close, with more and more professionals moving up north.
Digital will play a major role in the growth of these cities, with Manchester's digital GVA in 2017 standing at £2.8 billion, up from £1.7 billion in 2016. With an ever-growing population of digitally skilled professionals, the much-talked-about "digital skills gap" will become a thing of the past. Cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield will lead the way for digital talent, all playing an important role as thriving digital hubs.
"We're seeing a real confidence in northern tech that wasn't there a few years ago, in terms of the number of startups, the growth of scale-ups and the amount of investment coming into the sector," Stuart Clarke, director of the Leeds Digital Festival, told me in an email. "During this year's Leeds Digital Festival, Leeds even had more events than San Francisco, which shows how the industry is coming together to shout louder."
"In my experience of running a program that encourages London-based startups and early growth tech companies to move north (LondontoLeeds), more London-based firms are looking at the value of moving north: Cheaper rents combined with growing talent pools makes an intriguing proposition."
Putting all of this to one side, the future of the north will rely heavily on what happens post-Brexit. If investors lose faith, we risk letting the gap between London and the north fall back to where it was in the '90s. But, if everything goes smoothly, the north of England could play a crucial role in the U.K.'s economic future.