Southport steps up bid to tackle ‘youth flight’

In order to grow and diversify its economy Southport needs to keep its talented young people and now Southport BID is teaming up with a leading academic to tackle ‘youth flight’. Tony McDonough reports

Dr Eric Lybeck
Dr Eric Lybeck, a Presidential Fellow at the Manchester Institute of Education


A leading North West academic is supporting Southport’s efforts to transform its economy and offer a future for its young people.

Dr Eric Lybeck is a Presidential Fellow at the Manchester Institute of Education. He is now working with Southport BID to look at ways of growing sectors such as digital in the town and creating new hubs where people can collaborate and innovate.

In an interview with LBN in December 2021, Michelle Brabner, chief executive and principal of Southport College talked about the challenge of offering young people an incentive to stay in the town rather than seeking careers elsewhere.

“There is a perception among many young people locally that paths to rewarding, high skilled, and well paid jobs inevitably lead out of Southport,” said Michelle.

Originally from the US, Dr Lybeck’s academic background is in sociology. However, much of his focus these days is on education and, in particular, how it can support social mobility. He believes the approach in recent times has a major flaw.

He told LBN: “It is actually about jobs rather than education. A lot of the policies in the last 30 years have been about getting young people into higher education. That, of course, is a good thing but it doesn’t help everyone who doesn’t go into higher education.

“So by making the policies around social mobility just around the skills of the individual we are not squaring the circle. It leads to these places being drained of talent.”

Dr Lybeck’s spouse is also an academic, based at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. During the pandemic both found themselves working from home in Liverpool. Despite the difficult circumstances for everybody, he began to see advantages in the hybrid working model that many of us had been forced to adopt.

He did some research and found there were as many as a quarter of British academics who were working in jobs located in places far away from where they actually lived. What if cities developed co-working spaces that could be used by academics and other professions based on where they lived rather than where they worked.

He explained: ‘That led me to talk to Baltic Creative, Bruntwood, folks in Liverpool City Council,Sefton Council – everyone expressed a lot of interest in the idea, particularly as we were coming out of the pandemic and it looked like hybrid working might become the new norm.’

He then moved to Formby and realised the potential of Southport. “Locations like Lord Street have such amazing Victorian infrastructure and would be great places to work from home.  I was aware of the Town Deal and the Enterprise Arcade (a proposed incubator hub for digital start-ups in the town). So I reached out to see what that was about.”

“One thing led to another and I started working with Rachel Fitzgerald, chief executive of Southport BID to understand the town’s plans to diversify the economy.”

“We now have an exciting partnership consisting of the BID, Southport College, Sefton Council and the Atkinson bidding together for Research Council funding to link academic research and expertise in digital and creative industries at the University of Manchester to the town.

“Our academic team’s ideas around ‘levelling up education’ suggest that we can develop place-specific policies and investment to create the diverse skills needed to achieve the aspirations projected in the Town Deal.

“Hybrid working offers a great opportunity for towns such as Southport. One of the strategies in the Town Deal has obviously been to regenerate tourism and leisure, which have a huge history in Southport. And that’s definitely worth doing.

“But the challenge there is that it is seasonal and something like providing facilities for hybrid working could be a year-round resource. You could link that to a lifestyle or health and wellbeing offer. But connecting new skills and expertise in these sectors does not happen automatically.

“We have to facilitate these kinds of knowledge exchange, particularly in seaside towns where there might not be the same educational institutions and expertise places like Manchester and Liverpool take for granted as being accessible right on their doorstep.”

Dr Lybeck believes that collaboration between local authorities, colleges and local business is critical to the success of Levelling Up. It can help transform economies and create sustainable communities in the so-called ‘left behind’ towns that are having to compete with fast-growing city centres.

“It is about creating a curriculum that allows young people to thrive in a local area and providing the right facilities to allow people to work in the town,” he added. “Cities often spend huge amounts of money on these types of facilities.

“Establishing knowledge exchange hubs across the region could be really interesting -not just in cities but in towns.

Towns such as Southport, Runcorn and St Helens are beginning to invest in creating digital hubs to regenerate high streets and diversify local economies. But Dr Lybeck said: “There are a lot of these ‘digital placemaking’ initiatives but they aren’t always joined up.


youth, teenagers, young people, beach, sunset
Southport wants to persuade young people to forge their careers in the town


“We could really benefit from a regional digital strategy so we don’t have town competing against town and ultimately  against the much bigger Liverpool and Manchester digital and creative sectors.”

“This is particularly important in terms of developing local skills strategies. Too much of the curriculum is developed as a one-size-fits-all in Whitehall.

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“We need to organise education for local needs, and towns investing in digital enterprise hubs probably need to develop students’ entrepreneurial and project management skills, not simply technical skills in coding for existing businesses – jobs that are increasingly being automated anyway.

“And we need to think about how to create a curriculum that actually incentivises young people to become local innovators themselves. We then need to link these ideas to regional investment and opportunities that keep the added value in place, rather than encouraging young people to leave the area.

“Diversifying the economy and trying to reverse the youth flight are really important aims. But, we need to integrate towns such as Southport with the growth of Liverpool and Manchester so it is not further left behind and is part of the same story.”

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