Northshoring will be crucial in the coming years – but can’t be built solely on price.
I’m still not sure about the term northshoring. It conjures a world where a trip up the M6 will find hordes of labour on minimum wage in the sweatshops of Salford or factories or workshops of Warrington.
It’s inherently patronising, essentially establishing a countrywide version of Downton Abbey, where the power-brokers and privileged live upstairs (the south) while their minions and servants are down below (the north).
It also ignores what is already happening on the ground. When Freshfields moves into 80,000 sq ft of prime office space in Greater Manchester, it will be about more than a few HR posts and the photocopy minion. This is about frontline services offered by skilled and qualified people to a client base less concerned with where the work is done and more concerned with the invoice at the end of it.
Of course, London will always be a magnet for the best graduates, the biggest firms and the richest clients. We’re not likely to see tumbleweeds blowing past the glass monoliths of Moorgate or Canary Wharf any time soon.
But fixed fees and clients’ demands for lower costs will concentrate minds like nothing before. Technology is moving at such a pace that work can - and should - be done remotely, whether in a city centre location or not.
This is about more than a few HR posts and a minion doing the photocopying
The news that Sheffield is prepared to use public money to subsidise prospective northshorers shows what is at stake here.
The city is not just in competition with London to get firms to cross the M25, but must also vie with Manchester and Leeds in persuading them where to settle.
As well as financial incentives, the city has lots to offer: outstanding graduates from its universities, beautiful countryside on the doorstep and house prices that London movers would kill for.
Most important of all, perhaps, is the ground rent on office space. Prime office space is going for £14 per sq ft – that’s a couple of drinks in the capital.
Two elements hold the project back: firstly, the north must be mindful to market itself as competitive rather than cheap. Relocation isn’t about racing to the bottom, but about taking advantage of the labour market, work environment and housing surplus - as well as cost-effective premises - that the north can offer. If the opportunity is solely framed around price, inevitably someone will offer to do the work even cheaper still.
Secondly, you’re going to need to convince London workers to leave the capital or others to give up the ambition of moving there. This might be an easier sell for partners with young families needing space, but others will want more. Sheffield’s tag of 'Britain’s biggest village’ conjures a lovely image, but village life isn’t for everyone.
The idea of the north as some kind of cultural wasteland is clearly nonsense, but that perception still lingers. Fix that and the lawyers will be on board with the move. It’s surely only a matter of time before northshoring is the rule rather than the exception.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor