Northern powerhouses such as Leeds and Manchester are increasingly attractive to graduates. London should beware.
But the landscape has changed - literally. Great powerhouses such as Manchester and Leeds have regenerated from their industrial past into thriving and attractive places to do business. And in the legal profession, my hunch is the north potentially stands on the brink of hoovering up London jobs and leaving tumbleweed blowing through the capital’s streets.
When Freshfields’ move to Manchester was first suggested, it was met with a mixture of condescension and apathy. This was yet another firm, it was thought by some, taking advantage of cheap labour and low property values to shove a few back-office staff 'up north'.
But the reality could be very different. Freshfields has not chosen Manchester solely because it is cheaper than London – it has selected a city oozing with vibrancy and attractive to the brightest graduates not necessarily willing to work in the capital.
If this was purely about labour costs, there were cheaper options. But the size and scope of the firm’s ambitions mean highly skilled and talented staff will be required and employed. It is surely a template others will seek to emulate. Crucially, Freshfields is not looking just to exploit local conditions but to grow the business with Manchester as the catalyst.
And why wouldn’t relocated staff want to work there? A few BBC executives might have balked at the chance to relocate up the M6, but they don’t know what they’re missing. The Pennines or Dales on the doorstep; affordable and spacious property (perhaps even a garden!) – heck, even a beer not exceeding £5.
It’s not just Manchester. Take a walk round the developments shooting up in the legal district of Leeds and you can’t fail to be impressed at the ambition and endeavour. The place is absolutely thriving – and it won’t cost you a London-sized fortune to live in nearby Wetherby, York or Harrogate.
And what benefits remain if staying in London? Of course, major firms will always need a base for meeting and impressing clients (although I’ve spoken to one Leeds firm that markets itself to US clients as 'on the outskirts of the capital'), but what else? The prestige? The shiny buildings? The chance to spot a celebrity occasionally?
Technology is gradually making location a redundant force, no matter what the tourist attractions are outside. After a while you start to wonder if hundreds of staff are working in the City not because they should but because that’s the way it’s always been done.
Freshfields is in the market to reduce its costs and put its staff somewhere they will want to – and can afford to – live and work. Faced with those specifications, London loses every time to the powerhouses of the north. Perhaps the last one to depart the capital could turn the lights out when they leave?
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor