Escaping the 'Big Smoke': Why are So Many People Leaving London, and Where are They Going?

roof terrace overlooking london city

For decades, people have left London at various points in life to head for pastures new, seeking a slower, more sustainable lifestyle, space to roam (and for kids to play), and fresh air to breathe. But in more recent years the trend has gained pace, and now more people than ever are skipping the city for a slower pace in the country.

But why? Over the past 10 years, London’s economy has expanded by 20%. The city and its yawning surroundings have grown significantly to match, increasing by just over one million people in the nine years between 2008 and 2017, to 10 million people. This growth, however, is a big part of the reason why people are leaving in their droves. Over the past decade, more than half a million more British people left London than moved in.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening for some time

Young graduates are drawn to London in their twenties in search of jobs — whether that’s an internship or casual work, or to start on their career path with a well-paid role within a big company. As they mature, the vast majority marry and start a family — though this has become later and now extends well into the mid-to-late thirties. As their family grows, they feel trapped by the lack of space and depart London in their late thirties or early forties, taking their children with them. When their children reach their twenties, they return to London in search of employment, and the cycle continues.


So, why are so many people leaving London?

There have been attempts to ‘re-village’ London. Areas like Hampstead and Hackney, famous for their village-like centres and community spirit, have started social enterprises promoting everything from locally produced food to beer, and farmers’ markets have sprung up around the city, just like the produce they proffer. It has been well received, but locally grown apples and asparagus hasn’t been enough to turn it around for those who crave the extra freedom life outside the city brings.

Yes, you can get a chicken wrap at any time of the day or night, have your nails done at midnight, shop in a high-street store until 10pm and get the tube 24 hours a day — but the idea that you never fully switch off is something many people say drives them to seek a better life outside London’s often claustrophobic limits.

Renting in London is famously astronomical and for most people, buying a property is a distant dream with the average house price at around £460,000. But the search for a better work-life balance is often touted as the best reason for packing up and heading elsewhere. Other reasons include the pressure of commuting — exhausting, expensive, bad air quality ­– as well as cramped housing unsuitable for growing families, and more recently, the continuation of Brexit and ‘bad politics’ driving people to leave.

Tower Bridge view from apartment balcony


Though many depart London for pastures greener, the vast majority of people don’t travel very far: the Home Counties are still some of the most popular areas for relocating Londoners. The ‘Greater South East’ from Southampton to Milton Keynes and across to the east coast remains commutable (to a point) and is therefore popular with those keeping existing jobs and travelling into the city for work.

However, as found by the north offers the best value: a 2018 report ranked Britain’s major cities on factors like cost of living and transportation, and the top five results are all above the M40 — Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow. It’s worth noting that these are large cities still, and most people don’t leave London to head somewhere equally bustling.

roof terrace overlooking london city
swimming pool in back garden of house


The Surrey Hills is popular for its charming villages and beautiful countryside such as around Box Hill and along the North Downs Way, and yet is still easily commutable to London.


Those seeking a rural idyll often make their way down to West Sussex, and in particular the pretty villages of Petworth and Pulborough.

patio back garden


Gloucestershire’s tranquil Cotswolds region is a surprising hub of industry, as well as being home to stunning villages. Bristol offers city living without London price tags.


Conveniently placed for commuting into the capital, and with a number of lovely towns to choose from, the Home Counties are always popular.

big residential country residence with land
converted mill next to canal
unusual residential properties in countryside


The areas around Tunbridge Wells and the Weald are popular for their quirky houses, like these oast houses leftover from Kent’s hop-drying heritage.

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