Lockdown saw almost 250,000 people leave London to isolate elsewhere, according to Oxford University. Many sought refuge with family or secretly camped out in second homes, coming back to the capital when restrictions had eased. However, for a significant number, the pandemic has been an impetus to leave the capital permanently.
It’s not hard to see why. London has one of the highest costs of living in Europe, and outdoor space – a near vital necessity during lockdown – comes at a premium. Prior to the pandemic, spending a considerable chunk of your salary on renting a flat without a garden seemed worth it, given the city’s thriving arts and music scene, plethora of trendy pubs and restaurants and job opportunities. Now, with the hospitality and arts sectors still mostly closed, remote working becoming the norm and the threat of a second lockdown, the advantages of living in London are less clear.
In mid-July, The Independent reported that the number of jobseekers wanting to leave London had more than doubled in a fortnight, compared with the same period in 2019. The proportion of buyers with London postcodes registering with estate agencies outside of the capital also increased in April. It seems that many millennials are now asking themselves: what is the point of living in London?
London’s world class theatre scene was one of the biggest draws for Robin, a 27-year-old PhD student, but the closure of the sector has driven him to consider life elsewhere.
“I don't think we'll see theatre return for at least another year or two,” he says. “It’ll take a while to get that sense of freedom back that you get from living in London, so that along with the lack of live performances got rid of the things I was really staying in London for.”
The idea of paying rent without getting to enjoy all that London has to offer didn’t make much sense to Robin. “I was paying £600 a month for a box room in Lewisham which I was spending 90 percent of my time in because there's nothing else to do,” he says. “I just thought that I could move to Brighton, where I have a lot of friends as well and have a better quality of life as I’d get a little bit more for my money.”
Cost of living is what led Jon, a 29-year-old UX designer, to abandon the capital in favour of Devon. Getting on the property ladder wasn’t an option for him in London, but working remotely presented the perfect opportunity to buy further afield in Devon.
“When the pandemic first hit, my partner was made redundant from her job and mine went remote full-time,” he says. “I have a side project which has done quite well over lockdown and has supported her income, so this put us in the position to buy. As we didn’t need to be in London anymore, we just decided to move out to the country and get something a bit nicer for a bit less money. We decided it was just the right time to go as we want to have kids in the near future, and we feel like that would be a bit less stressful out in the country.”
House prices in the capital are too high for Jon and his partner to even consider. “The housing market in London was really the biggest obstacle for us,” he says. “There’s just a huge gap between renting and owning, and some of the government schemes just feel like a bit of a gamble. The only thing that would’ve stopped us moving out in the first place would’ve been lower house prices.”
Alejandra, a 22-year-old student, was already feeling some hostility towards London due to Brexit. But during the pandemic, she says that an increase in British nationalism has made her – a Spanish national – feel unwelcome.
“I decided to move to Berlin as I felt like I was losing out a lot being in London, such as having particular rights and access to student loans,” she says. “I was due to start a Masters at Goldsmiths but it just didn’t make sense to pay the same fees for online classes and I haven’t received any sort of support or resources from them. I’ve invested my time and money in this country but I just don’t feel welcome.”
The government’s handling of the pandemic was also a point of frustration for Alejandra. “I just got very scared with how things were handled,” she says. “You can go to the pub or Nando’s but you can’t meet up at your friend’s house. It just hasn’t been a priority at all to help renters or students so I felt like I needed to be somewhere where things were clearer.”
The lack of support for renters was a point of frustration for Robin, too. Your late twenties are arguably the years to think about settling down, but astronomical housing costs in London make this impossible for many millennials – him included. He hopes that by moving to Brighton, he may be able to afford a property one day.
“In London, it feels like a race to the bottom in terms of tenants’ rights,” he says. “We’re just at the mercy of private landlords who just aren’t monitored. Social housing feels like the best solution to me as the tenancy is longer so you can actually feel like you have a home and being managed by the council means that there’s accountability. If there was better social housing, that would take away from my desire to buy.”
With so many young people leaving London, this begs the question: what will our capital look like in the future?
“I guess my kind of utopian hope is that London stops being the absolute hub of the cultural industry in the UK,” Robin says. “A lot of people moving out that I know are in the more precarious creative industry jobs so it will hopefully mean that creative industries are thriving more in the towns and cities across the UK, because there won't be as centralised to London. I would hope that London housing costs would go down as a result and the people who were born and raised there are able to continue living there and can buy houses there.”
Beyond the creative industry, Alejandra warns that London’s position as a cultural hub may be a thing of the past. “People from Europe just can’t afford to stay here. It would be beneficial for the government to create incentives for us to say,” she says. “They should want to use my labour and contribute to the economy, but I feel like myself and other Europeans in service or hospitality jobs will take our value elsewhere.”
Whether the mass exodus from the capital creates opportunities for Britain’s regional towns remains to be seen. But the fact that so many who make up London’s heart and soul no longer feel at home here is worrying. A city where young people can’t afford to live becomes stale pretty quickly – pandemic or no pandemic.