If London's still calling, young Aussies have stopped listening

The British capital is losing some of its allure.

For a while now Londoners have been wondering: where did all the Aussies go?

Ten years ago you couldn't move in the British capital for bartenders from Sydney and waiters from Melbourne. Earls Court was dubbed "Kangaroo Valley", and it was hard work walking down Clapham high street without bumping into someone who knew someone who knew someone you went to school with.

But the statistics tell the tale. London is, like, so last decade.

According to the latest official British Home Office figures, obtained exclusively by Fairfax, the number of Australians heading to Britain for work has halved since 2005. The exodus began when the financial crisis hit the City and it hasn't stopped since.

There were no big changes to the visa system - it's all about attitude and money. The number of Australians moving permanently to Britain has steadily increased, from 4800 in 2001 to 9200 in 2011, the most recent year covered by Australia's Department of Immigration figures. However, this increase has been dwarfed by a collapse in the number of young Australians undergoing that hallowed rite of passage, the two-year working holiday.

The Youth Mobility Scheme - formerly the Working Holidaymaker program - lets Australians aged 18 to 30 work in Britain for up to two years.

Back in the first quarter of 2005 more than 7000 young Australians headed to Britain for the classic combination of part-time work, copious beer and cheap European holidays. However, in the first quarter of 2013, only 3200 took up the opportunity.


Youth Mobility Scheme visas are by far the most-used work visas for Australians coming to Britain. But there has also been a steady decline in non-YMS work visas, and in non-work visas. It seems Australians are just plain going off London.

The Aussie "exodus" was first noticed in 2008, when The Times newspaper reported a record number headed home for Christmas after the financial crisis hit. Mike Rann, Australia's high commissioner to Britain, puts the trend down to the changing economies of Britain and Australia.

"With low unemployment, low inflation and 21 years of continuous economic growth, Australia is in a strong position globally," he said. "More than ever, young Australians have opportunities on home soil."

South African Chris Hancock agrees. He arrived in London in the heady mid-1990s, when antipodean expats ruled the capital.

"I thought as much," he says, when told the statistics. He's noticed it from behind the bar at the Walkabout pub in central London, where he is general manager.

The cost of living has gone up a lot in London, he says. "Rents are through the roof. The general consensus among Aussies is they can make more money at home on the mines."

When the pound was worth three Aussie dollars, London's jobs were plentiful and rents not so exorbitant, it was possible to come over, work a bar job, and see Europe. You could party hard and still save a nest-egg for the return to Australia, Now, not so much.

"They realise how expensive it is to live in London and they think, 'bugger it, I'll travel a bit then go home'."

These days more professionals - doctors and lawyers - are coming to Britain than young people looking for a good time, Mr Hancock believes.

Kevin Ellis, chief executive of TNT magazine, keeps a keen eye on the trend - because it hits his bottom line. TNT is the "bible" for expats in London, who scour its pages for jobs and cheap travel deals.

"The number of Aussies and Kiwis coming to the UK has dropped significantly," he says. But he says the work visa statistics don't tell the whole story. Because the Aussie dollar is so strong, and work opportunities and salaries in Britain so weak, young Australians just aren't coming here to work any more, he says. Instead, they just come on extended holidays and don't bother finding work.

"They come through Asia or Dubai, through Europe - they do a lot of travelling before they get to London," he says. "There aren't many jobs here - the Europeans are nicking them. The UK is awash with Polish plumbers.

"Now [young Australians] are gifted money from their parents - the travel [to Europe] is still a rite of passage, and the travel numbers are still strong."

London mayor Boris Johnson recently complained that Australians were getting a raw deal compared with Europeans, after a teacher told him she was "kicked out" of Britain" at the end of her work visa - which Johnson called "absurd discrimination".

It's an open secret that Johnson wants to be Prime Minister. If it ever happens, maybe Kangaroo Valley will fill once again.