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FEATURES - IS IT GRIM UP NORTH?

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More opportunity in northern cities does not necessarily mean more people, says Chris Mahony ...
More opportunity in northern cities does not necessarily mean more people, says Chris Mahony

Well-intentioned economic policymakers might be forgiven for looking at recent government research and concluding darkly there really is nowt as queer as folk.

The research paper, with the distinctly functional title Development of a migration model, suggests regeneration efforts focused on employment and incomes might be undone by ignoring the human factor. Commissioned by the ODPM, academics from the universities of Newcastle, Leeds and Heriot Watt University studied the impact of alternative policy and economic scenarios on population movements between and within regions.

The stark - and initially surprising - finding was that making the residents of those towns and cities better qualified and better-off could actually increase the population flow away from them.

The researchers found a 5% increase in employment and 3% rise in household income across the northern urban areas 'would result in a substantial rise in out-migration'. While some people would be attracted to move to those areas by the increased wealth, the number of immigrants would be heavily outweighed by those waving goodbye.

One of the paper's authors, Glen Bramley, professor of urban studies at Heriot Watt, argues that population loss should not be considered a symptom of policy failure, but that instead policymakers and councils should focus on improving the environment for whoever chooses to stay.

'Liveability is the answer. Make your town a place people like to live in. Size is not everything.'

Prof Bramley pointed to research findings which suggested action on the civic environment could reverse population flow. The improvements used for the predictive model were a 10% reduction in vacant and derelict land, a 10% increase in listed buildings and a small but significant reduction in air pollution.

But, again perversely, while improving the public built environment can help stem population loss, the study sugge sts improved housing can do just the reverse.

The paper suggests poor housing is an indicator of poverty and 'poverty tends to trap people in these urban areas and a reduction in poverty enables more people to move out'.

This effect, the paper says, outweighs the quite small tendency for more immigrants to be attracted.

Derek Bateman (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association's economic regeneration executive, said the report could lend impetus to existing efforts by many councils to improve the local environment.

'It confirms quality of life has a significant impact [on population movement]. We have not paid enough attention to the environment in the past.'

He said making a place nicer to live in could attract new employers and thus generate jobs.

But the paper gloomily concludes that one aspect of the 'It's grim up North' mindset is most certainly beyond the reach of even Downing Street - the climate. In perhaps one of its least surprising findings, the team reported that their model results 'indicated a preference for warmer and drier parts of the country'. The south of England might not be Florida, but some northerners it seems do harbour a secret desire to escape the rain and temperatures an average 2-3 degrees lower than they can find down south.

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