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LS shows richer moving picture than Levelling Up White Paper

By Chris A Garrington, on 28 March 2022

by Ian Shuttleworth, Queens University Belfast

The Government’s new Levelling Up White Paper focuses attention on trends in the movement of people within the UK. Ian Shuttleworth was cited by its authors – and he says longitudinal Census data can show us a richer picture than was revealed by the document.

When civil servants from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities were putting together their new White Paper, I was one of the researchers they consulted.

Had migration rates within the UK been falling in the long term as they had been in the US, they wanted to know? The issue is a matter of concern because it is considered a key factor in levelling up the labour market between regions.

If people are unwilling to move, that can lead to them working at a level that doesn’t fulfil their potential. And it has an effect on places, too. Over the years, patterns of mobility have left the UK with ‘steaming-ahead places’ in the South East and ‘left behind’ places elsewhere, the argument goes.

In particular, graduates are more likely to move to find suitable work – that means some areas tend to be abandoned by the more highly-skilled, leaving them with depleted levels of human capital and lower productivity. This has negative effects for richer areas, too, because it puts pressure on housing costs and living standards, which can also lower growth and productivity.

NHS Register data

The White Paper quoted a research paper by myself and my colleague Tony Champion from 2016, which used data from the National Health Service Register on people  moving between areas within the UK. However, the companion paper – which was also seen by the White Paper’s authors and which used Census data from the ONS Longitudinal Study, wasn’t directly quoted.

It’s worth looking at that second paper, though, because it gave a more nuanced picture.

The White Paper asks whether a long-term decline in inter-county mobility in the United States was replicated in the United Kingdom. It reports, correctly, that the overall level of internal mobility has fallen in the UK since 2001. It points to rising housing costs in London as a major factor, saying they lessen the wage premium and therefore dampen the incentive to move but that is not the full picture.

In fact, our LS research shows migration has dropped not just for graduates but for all groups of people. But we find that when it comes to moving, there’s still the same difference between graduates and non-graduates that there always was.

Surprising result

When we looked further back at the health service data to see if the USA experience of decline in geographic mobility since the 1970s had been mirrored in the United Kingdom, we were surprised by the result: In England and Wales there had been no substantial long-term decline in the overall intensity of between-area migration over that period, unlike for inter-county moves in the USA.

This was the case for both between-region migration and also the rate of migration within regions. There was a drop in migration for those aged 65 and over, but the rates for the other four age groups we looked at had been essentially stable or increased.

That surprising result was the reason we decided also to look at Census data from the ONS-LS: this confirmed the overall result but showed a more nuanced picture.

The Census data in the ONS LS showed us that as in the USA, there was a marked reduction in the level of shorter-distance moves – less than 10 kilometres – for almost all types of people. But in contrast to the US experience, the proportion of people in England and Wales making longer-distance address changes had declined much less.

So if we want to know what’s driving the trends, we could look more closely at the causes of the sharp reduction in shorter-distance moving in Britain as well as all moves in the USA. That, too, could help inform policy on ‘levelling up’ in the future.

Are People Changing Address Less? An Analysis of Migration within England and Wales, 1971–2011, by Distance of Move, by Tony Champion and Ian Shuttleworth, was published in 2017: . Popul. Space Place, 23: e2026. doi: 10.1002/psp.2026.

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