The great exodus: Record numbers of Britons leave to chase the good life

Once, it seemed a distant dream, to emigrate and embrace another lifestyle. But the boom in UK property prices has enabled hundreds of thousands to live abroad. Philip Thornton reports on a 21st-century phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Millions of us return from our summer holiday each year determined to trade in cold, rainy Britain for a better life abroad - only to slump back into our dull daily routine within a week. But now, it seems, record numbers of Britons are living their dream. More than 190,000 of us upped sticks and moved abroad last year, according to the latest figures from the Government's statisticians.

Millions of us return from our summer holiday each year determined to trade in cold, rainy Britain for a better life abroad - only to slump back into our dull daily routine within a week. But now, it seems, record numbers of Britons are living their dream. More than 190,000 of us upped sticks and moved abroad last year, according to the latest figures from the Government's statisticians.

That was 5,000 more than the number of people who left in 2002, and was the biggest total since modern methods of estimating emigration began in 1991. Even this figure is unlikely to capture all those who leave, perhaps temporarily, but who end up putting down roots.

On the surface, this exodus might seem counter-intuitive. The UK economy is growing at its fastest pace for a decade, 3,000 new jobs are created every month while foreigners are flocking to Britain in increasing numbers. Why would anyone want to leave?

In fact, the huge volumes of immigrants and emigrants are the opposite signs of the same coin - globalisation. "With a long-haul plane ticket, the world is your oyster," said Peter Robinson, marketing director of Homes Overseas magazine, which is read by 500,000 people a month. "The world is opening up and people are getting very bold about where they are happy to go."

He said that, five years ago, his company organised a public exhibition that included stalls from eight countries. Their latest one had 37 overseas exhibitors. This will come as little surprise to viewers of No Going Back, Channel 4's series about Britons seeking a new life overseas. The series has included a family with three children who set up a sports fishing business on the Gold Coast of Australia, and a man and his wife and brother who struggle to build a safari lodge in Zambia.

The Office for National Statistics figures show that 9,900 people left to live in the Middle East in 2002 compared with 2,100 just three years earlier. Emigration to eastern Europe has risen from 12,700 to 15,500 over the same period. The ONS figures are based on surveys of people leaving the UK that classes emigrants as people planning to be abroad for at least a year, which will include students and contract workers. But according to experts who deal with outward migration there is a noticeable trend in people planning to try a life abroad. "It has become the conversation topic at the dinner party and at the school gate and it's spreading like wildfire - people saying 'sod this'," Mr Robinson said.

The most popular single destination appeared to be Australia which attracted 46,800 British migrants in 2002. Other Commonwealth countries are also popular destinations: a further 17,000 opted for New Zealand; 12,300 headed for Canada and just under 10,000 chose a life in the new South Africa.

But the big draw for those with itchy feet is the European Union, which for more than a decade has allowed virtually free movements of its citizens between countries. Citizens of the EU qualify for free health care and more recently have benefited from the surge in budget-price airlines. Europe still attracts the largest number of British expats of any region: almost 110,000 left for another EU state in 2002, a third of the total. The ONS is able only to identify the top three, unsurprisingly led by Spain, which attracted roughly 50,000 new residents between 1999 and 2002. Spain was followed - perhaps more surprisingly - by Germany with 39,400 and France with 32,100. Anecdotal evidence would point to Italy as another key destination thanks to the publicity over Tony Blair's holidays in Tuscany.

Owen Small, a director of, a migration website, said that the vast majority of its clients were skilled tradespeople. "These are people who think that they no longer feel adequately recognised in this country for their trade - electricians, motor mechanic, carpenters and so on," he said.

"The majority of people leave because they are disillusioned with this country and believe it is going down the pan, especially those with young children who want a better life for their kid."

Katie Pownall, the author of No Going Back - Buying Abroad, the book to accompany the C4 series, said this had been the most noticeable shift in recent years. "The main reason used to be retirement, as people wanted to enjoy their golden years, but we are seeing more and more families with young children or young professional couples planning to have kids," she said.

"A lot of the reason is schooling. People seem very happy about the idea of sending their children to school in France where standards are high."

She said many families she had spoken to wanted to bring their children up where they could play in the street and to live in a country that accepted young people in restaurants and bars. "They said [that in Britain] they felt almost ashamed to have kids at social events for not getting a babysitter," she said.

Linda Kerr, a chartered psychologist in private practice, said there was an increased confidence among émigrés that they would be able to adapt to a new life overseas. "Abroad is often not perceived as being as foreign or exotic as it once was, and therefore is far less daunting," said Ms Kerr, who specialises in global employment and serial expats. "There is often a 'we'll try it' approach to moving, where people believe that they can always return to the UK."

She said that low-cost air travel and technological advances had made it easier than ever to keep in touch, meaning that leaving behind family and friends in the UK was perceived as less of a problem than in the past.

Ms Pownall said the communications revolution meant it was possible for people to work anywhere in the world thanks to e-mail and ISDN technology.

"There's the weather, which is always a factor," she added. "Other people, especially in London, have found they have made an awful lot of money on their property and can sell that and make a £75,000 profit to live on."

This speculative factor has been seen in areas such as eastern Europe. Mr Robinson said: "There was one chap who sold his £50,000 council flat to buy a post office with a property above it in Bulgaria for £40,000, pocket the difference and start a new life.

But emigration is a risky decision and possibly the most momentous life change that people can make.

Ms Kerr said while for some people a move abroad was the result of a well-thought-out comparison between their present and future circumstances, for others the destination was seen simply as "paradise".

Ms Pownall said that while she encountered few people who regretted the change in lifestyle, the major hurdle was in establishing a new business career in their adopted countries.

"A lot of them have gone out to run a bed and breakfast - and it has been a lot more work than they ever imagined and they found themselves relatively hard-up for a long time," she said.

There are other cultural issues as well. She cited the sample of a couple with children of secondary school age who were planning to return because the children could not adapt and hated their new school. "That's something to bear in mind - how adaptable your children are going to be," she said.

Jo Bull
Full-time mother, lives in America

Jo Bull, 34, moved with her husband, Simon, 37, and their one-year-old daughter, Jennifer, from Surrey to Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

"We moved because my husband's company was setting up an office in LA and asked him if he would like to move permanently. It is just as expensive as London here, if not more so, but there is a healthier mindset.

"A large aspect of the lifestyle is linked to the great weather. I have been here since April and I have seen only three days of rain. The sun always shines and it makes people very friendly towards each other. There is a stronger work ethic here but even though my husband works longer hours, we have more quality time as a family because we know we're going to get good weather in the evenings and weekends and can make plans for doing things together. We live three blocks from the ocean and initially my husband was not a beach lover but he is planning to take surfing lessons next year.

"I am expecting our second child but because of the great climate, I never feel trapped in the house and if I go for a walk in the park, people are much more ready to chat. I have a lot of international friends from New Zealand and Finland and others who have relocated here. There are enough British pubs and shops to be reminded of home if we want to be. We eat healthier food than we did at home and my husband, who is in marketing, has a gym in his office. There are lots of yoga centres here and it all encourages you to be healthier."

Miranda Taxis
Holiday rental business, lives in Italy
Miranda Taxis, 38, moved to Arezzo, Tuscany, from Herefordshire with her husband, William, 40, and their children, Annie, five, and Isabella, seven, two years ago, to run a holiday rental business.

She said: "We had a lovely home in Herefordshire where my husband was restoring property and I had been a teacher but we did not have a mortgage and we felt in an ideal position to make a life-changing decision.

"William's mother is Italian and although she does not live in Italy, we had visited his family in Trento enough times to know we liked the country and lifestyle. We wanted a property that had the potential to live in and run as a business so we bought our home, Il Pero, in Val di Chiana.

"The fact that we are able to grow all our own vegetables is very important to us. Apart from meat, we are pretty much self-sustaining.

"Everybody here knows everybody else and you can literally go out and leave the door open, no one comes in. The people are unbelievably helpful and the community spirit is fantastic.

"There is a market every Tuesday at our nearest village and everyone gets together to chat. The children are much happier and healthier here, and are also bilingual. They are at school from 8am until 1pm and for the rest of the day they can play outside and they hardly watch any TV."

Andrew Solomon
TV producer, lives in France
Andrew Solomon, 49, from north London, moved to Paris in July 1997 to work for French television. His wife, Deirdre, 42, and daughter Saskia, aged eight, joined him the following summer.

Mrs Solomon said: "My daughter laughs at my French. We realised she had picked up the language when we heard her talk in her sleep in French.

"It's a well-oiled machine in Paris. You can have a very comfortable quality of life if you are happy to conform to the French way of life.

"The system provides everything - there is good health care, the Metro runs beautifully and is very cheap. There is so much to do here. There are fantastic art courses and the most superb street market on our doorstep.

"There is a mothers' group called Message. You pay around £15 a year to join a huge network which organises events to help people adjust to living in Paris. It is a way of meeting other people in the same boat.

"We have a much higher standard of living and a better quality of life. We go out two to three times a week. In London I couldn't afford to eat out."

Jamie Anderson
Architect, lives in Greece
"I was working as an architect in Edinburgh for a year after graduating and my girlfriend, Stephany, and I were looking for a place to buy but would have had to scrape together the pennies to get a small flat outside the city. Now we live in a two-bedroom apartment in Halandri, a leafy suburb of Athens, which has two balconies and lots of space - much more than we would ever have had in Edinburgh. It cost us £98,000.

"My girlfriend is Greek and that was one reason for me to move to Athens. It's a lot easier to find work here and the weather is much nicer. I can imagine staying here because I enjoy the quality of life. I work from 9am until 5pm but I work less hours at the moment. I've made a lot of friends at my Greek classes at the local university. We eat out a couple of times a week and the city is far easier to live in. Athens is great for island holidays, too.

"I've been surprised at how easy the adjustment to living and working here has been. I only had to look for a job for two months before I joined a firm that designs homes for British clients. I have met a few other people who are British and about my age who have done what I did and I think, on the whole, it is becoming easier to do."