We should help people to move to where the jobs are

A BBC Report finds that, forty years after the Miners’ Strike, former coal-mining areas remain economically depressed. The Beeb’s survey suggests that 73% of people living in mining towns and villages have seen little or no progress on ‘levelling up’.

With a sad predictability, residents report that there are no suitable jobs in their area and that prospects for young people are grim.

But it’s not just former mining communities, is it?  There is a similar picture in other areas, former textile centres such as in-the-news Rochdale or Blackburn, or seaside towns such as Blackpool or Scarborough. A shortage of jobs leads to a high level of economic inactivity, if not the levels of measured unemployment which we used to see in the past.

There has been much discussion of rising inactivity in recent months. Although this has been flagged as a national problem, there is a strong regional dimension. In areas where good jobs are scarce, inactivity is naturally going to be higher – and this is associated with all manner of social ills, including poor physical and mental health, lower life expectancy, drug abuse, crime and vandalism, poor educational achievement and child neglect.

The Government points to substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money going into trying to revive the economies of depressed areas, something which, though now given modern names such as ‘The Long-Term Plan for Towns’, are essentially continuations of a tradition of help for depressed regions going back to the 1920s and 1930s.

These initiatives – moving some government offices, sprucing up high streets, new community facilities, offering incentives to firms to relocate – may have some impact, though the results are frequently disappointing. But are they the only way to approach persistent problems of this kind? Should we put so much emphasis on trying to maintain traditional communities for which the economic rationale has disappeared?

It’s always going to be an uphill struggle to attract employers to what were once pit villages, miles from large population centres, or run-down seaside towns which holidaymakers have long ago deserted for Benidorm or Disney World.

Instead of trying to take work to the workers, maybe we should change the emphasis a bit. Every day, we see thousands of economic migrants trying to get into this country rather than stay at home in conditions of grinding poverty. Mobility in search of economic opportunity is a natural human response that has been with us forever. In the USA, there is internal mobility on a scale which dwarfs anything in the UK, with people moving from state to state in large numbers.

Yet within the UK, geographical mobility has been falling. What mobility there is tends largely to be by affluent middle-class couples moving out of crowded towns to suburban or rural locations where they get open spaces and larger houses, a process aided by the increased possibilities for working from home.

Moving from depressed regions to where the jobs are would reduce inactivity, boost life chances and national productivity. Many of us are aware of this, at least subliminally. After university, I never returned to work where I was brought up, and neither did many if not most of my contemporaries.

We were probably wise to do so. Some time ago the Resolution Foundation showed that graduates who stay in their local region are more likely to be stuck in low-productivity jobs below their skill level than those who move away. The same goes for those with other qualifications and skills if the demand just isn’t there in your area. You’re a trained engineer and you end up working in a warehouse. And if we had more internal mobility, we wouldn’t have quite the need for importing migrants to work in our big cities.

Of course it’s not easy to move from area to area in search of work. Apart from the inevitable emotional wrench, there are real barriers to mobility. Outside the capital and a few well-endowed cities, public transport is poor to non-existent, which precludes commuting significant distances. Another obvious problem for longer-distance shifts is the unavailability of residential accommodation. Particularly if you are currently securely settled in social housing, it is asking a lot for you to give this up to take your chances in an expensive city like London or Manchester.

Much is made of the importance of traditional communities, with the emphasis of government spending being on maintaining and strengthening them. Is there, though, a little too much sentimentality in this? Small, closed communities can be a curse as well as a blessing.

In a crueller world than that in which we live, mobility could be increased by cutting benefits and forcing people to get on their bike, like Norman Tebbit’s Dad. In a more rational world, we would deregulate housing, build more new homes and make it cheaper to move. 

But it is what it is. If we are going to continue to spend billions on levelling-up, should we perhaps think of novel ways of increasing mobility? Resettlement loans for those who wish to move away, encouraging reasonably-priced temporary accommodation for single workers in big cities, so young people can move to work?  It might be cheaper than keeping potentially productive individuals in sullen inactivity in locations which have lost any economic rationale.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

2 thoughts on “We should help people to move to where the jobs are”

  1. Posted 10/03/2024 at 11:58 | Permalink

    What recipe does Len have for his home town of Southport, Lancashire? It’s so badly off it can’t even restart the tram on its famous pier.

  2. Posted 11/03/2024 at 12:48 | Permalink

    One thing would be to free it from Sefton. The problems of Bootle are always going to be worse than those of Southport, and with a Labour majority since 2012 will naturally command more attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *