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Londoners flee steep house prices, head for provinces
[BIRMINGHAM] Expensive housing, an overloaded transport system and a lack of space are driving thousands of Londoners out of the hectic British capital to other, calmer cities such as Birmingham.
The shortage of affordable housing is a major theme of campaigning for the May 7 general election and the National Bureau of Statistics says a record 60,000 people aged 30-39 left London between June 2012 and June 2013.
Rather than treading the well-worn route of relocating from the city to the countryside, many have chosen to move to the central city of Birmingham, Bristol in the southwest, or Manchester in the north.
"Rental prices (in Birmingham) are half of what they are in London," said Kelly Convey, travel blogger for Expedia.
"London is becoming exceptionally hard to be able to afford." Buying a property costs an average of £500,000 in London (S$1 million), compared to an average of £120,000 in Birmingham.
Despite the employment and lifestyle benefits of the capital, not everyone is willing to spend every last penny on London life.
Journalist Tom Cullen moved to Birmingham in 2013 after living in London for 12 years, setting up an e-magazine, ichoosebirmingham.com, which reviews food, culture and entertainment in Birmingham.
"Birmingham made me the best offer," he said in a December article for the Independent newspaper.
"Birmingham won through house prices, culture, restaurants and bars... good schools... space, and low start-up costs for new companies." Chris Pyatt, 29, chose Birmingham to launch his web design company because it is cheaper than London while being close to the capital, which is under an hour and a half away by train.
"It has a big catchment area - because we are in the middle of the country, we are accessible," he said in his office on the top floor of a neo-Georgian building, five minutes' walk from the main railway station.
'GENERATION WHO LIKE CITIES'
With some 1.2 million residents, almost half from ethnic minorities, Birmingham has long been lumbered with a reputation as grey and dull.
The city hit the headlines earlier this year after an analyst on US TV channel Fox News called it a "no-go zone" for non-Muslims, drawing derision from many Britons.
But Birmingham has had something of a renaissance in recent years.
"It's developing into a more attractive city," said Ms Convey. "It's very easy to get around."
Britain's second-biggest city boasts four Michelin-starred restaurants, a symphony orchestra, high quality theatre, concert and shopping venues and proximity to two Premier League football teams.
Meanwhile, Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that delayed commuter trains into the capital were having a "significant impact on business".
"London's transport infrastructure is creaking at the same time as the city's population is booming," Mr Stanbridge said.
Birmingham's city centre was almost completely destroyed by German bombing in World War II and then rebuilt with heavy concrete and highways impossible to cross without walking through darkened underpasses.
But today the city is being regenerated.
Highways have been redesigned and buildings with cutting-edge architecture have sprung up including a new library, the renovated Bullring shopping centre and The Mailbox, a shopping and office development.
The main railway station is being redeveloped and office complexes are spreading rapidly.
The city added 6,000 jobs in 2014, according to Neil Raimi, chief executive of Marketing Birmingham, the city's promotional arm.
"Ten years ago, people in London would have moved progressively a bit further and further out," Mr Raimi said, contrasting that with the current crop of movers.
"There is a generation of people who like cities, don't want to go and live in the countryside," he added.
While conceding that Birmingham is "not exactly the most glamorous of cities", Ms Convey said it still had a strong appeal.
"Everything is accessible," she added. "It is less stressful."