Just a hop, skip and a jump from London, the northern Home Counties offer close proximity to the capital, good transport links, beautiful rural surroundings and great career options.
Within striking distance of London, the northern Home Counties are an obvious choice for people who want to get away from fast-paced city life but still want to pop into the capital if necessary.
The rolling Chiltern Hills, which stretch from Oxfordshire through Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire to Hitchin in Hertfordshire, are a major highlight. Swathed in woodland and dotted with traditional brick and flint cottages and medieval churches, it is a surprisingly rural region, despite being just a few miles from London.
It is this proximity to the capital that has led a number of fashion businesses to base their head offices in the area. The main attractions are the lower cost base and having warehousing nearby while still being close enough to London to attract the best talent. Transport links are excellent, thanks to the M1, Luton Airport and railway routes to London, the Midlands and the North.
Companies based here include premium lifestyle brand Ralph Lauren in Watford, lingerie etailer Figleaves in Welwyn Garden City, cashmere retailer Brora in Stevenage and accessories retailer Bags Etc in Harlow. The non-food offices of supermarket giant Tesco are also in Welwyn Garden City.
Sophie Bubb, associate director at recruitment firm Michael Page Design, says: “There are some fantastic brands and retailers here which can prove attractive to prospective candidates and this, along with the beautiful countryside, is clearly a big selling point.”
Being on London’s doorstep is clearly the region’s biggest plus point, but it is also the cause of major headaches for headhunters recruiting in the area. Wheeler explains: “The proximity of some areas to London is attractive but it can be a challenging region to recruit for, as Londoners often resist commuting outside of the central zones due to cost or a difference in lifestyle. But rail links are quick and convenient and larger retailers often provide a free shuttle service from the mainline station.”
Even a global fashion brand like Ralph Lauren has been known to struggle to attract top talent because it is based in Watford. Another headhunter, who has worked for Ralph Lauren, says: “It is very surprising that they chose to be based in Watford. With it being a US brand, I think they don’t understand how the market works over here. People don’t want to get on a train. There’s the cost of getting a train ticket, on top of the cost of a tube pass. For younger people this can be quite an issue, which is why they really struggle to fill the junior buying and merchandising roles.”
Sharon Needham, a former Topshop buyer, says the job prospects in the northern Home Counties should not be dismissed. She has been a retail consultant for 15 years, working for a number of companies in the area including Figleaves and the Pentland Group.
“People who think there’s no one to work for out here should think again. There are more and more companies moving out as they look for cheap warehousing. Being able to get onto the motorways quickly is also an advantage for fashion businesses,” she explains.
She is currently advising Alexon Group, the mainstream womenswear retailer that operates fascias including Ann Harvey, Eastex and Kaliko, on how to improve its product ranges. Needham admits Luton - where Alexon has its head office - is not the most glamorous location. “It’s very grubby in some areas, but fantastic in others. I’ve been working for Alexon for two years, and during that time the change in Luton has been incredible. They have pulled down some horrible tenement buildings and have spent lots of money on developing the town centre,” she says.
Alexon will be moving into new office buildings on the outskirts of Luton later this year, which Needham says will make a big difference as its current head office is “very old and traditional”.
The lifestyle is clearly one of the main reasons Needham has stayed in the region. A former Londoner, she moved to a village in Bedfordshire after having children. “Everyone thought I wouldn’t last five minutes out in the sticks. It was a big deal for us, but we’ve never looked back. I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “The quality of life is the biggest improvement. Also the schools are brilliant out here.”
This was the resounding message from the HR team at Tesco, one of the biggest employers of fashion staff in the region. Rob Peacock, recruitment manager for central Europe, says staff are generally happy to commute or relocate to the area. He adds: “Feedback from our people shows that many people enjoy a journey to work of less than 30 minutes and it is seen as a great advantage not to have to undertake an expensive commute into central London. Both our head office sites are located within a 25-minute direct train journey into London, which offers our people the best of both worlds.”
Peacock says surrounding towns, like Hertford and St Albans, offer a large choice of bars and restaurants and are seen as great places to live. In his view, the career opportunities on offer at Tesco far outweigh any location issues. “And for most of our staff, location is a benefit not a concern,” he says.
Moving to the northern Home Counties can also open up opportunities for smaller businesses. Brora, the Scottish cashmere retailer, moved its HQ from London to Stevenage in 2008. Marketing manager Robert Robinson says: “We needed more space and the logistical position works well. It is only a 20-minute commute from King’s Cross, so it’s very convenient for staff commuting from London. And we’re on the main line to Scotland where our mill is based.”
He admits the company has struggled to fill some of its design roles because of its location, but people will commute from London.
Accessories retailer Bags Etc is another example of a company that has put down roots in the region. Managing director Nolan Headley loves being based in Harlow: “It’s very green and quiet. I’m looking out of my office window now and I can see trees and blue skies. That is not going to happen in the capital. Living in London is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Having the company’s warehouse next to the office is a big advantage, he says. “It’s not essential to be in central London. It’s far more important to be able to have your warehouse nearby.
In this industry, product is everything. We can see product coming off the container and we see it go into stores.”
Headley says the company’s location has never been an issue when it comes to recruiting staff and it is often seen as a benefit. He adds: “It is easy to hop on a plane, it doesn’t take long to head north and London Liverpool Street station is just half an hour away by train.”
At home in the Home Counties
Tesco Supermarket chain
Location Welwyn Garden City (all non-food); Cheshunt (food and corporate); both in Hertfordshire
Number of head office staff across both offices About 6,000
Departments at both head offices Buying, merchandising, design, marketing, finance, HR
Perks Market-leading salaries, free shares
Location Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire
Number of head office staff 125
Departments at head office Marketing,
buying and merchandising, creative, digital marketing, IT, finance, garment technology, online merchandising, business information, HR
Perks Breakfast, free tea and coffee, pay-day drinks, social club
Luggage and handbags retailer
Location Harlow, Essex
Number of head office staff 12
Departments at head office Everything except manufacturing
Perks Staff can ‘test wear’ handbags for free
Location Stevenage, Hertfordshire
Number of head office staff 60
head office Design, graphics, marketing, accounts, IT, web, warehousing
Perks Discounts, bonuses
Number of head office staff 257
head office Buying, merchandising, design, finance, property,
HR, retail operations, marketing, visual merchandising, ecommerce, IT,
Perks Staff discount, pension scheme
4.6m Population of northern Home Counties - Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire
£647.30 Total cost of living per household per week*
£308,899 Average house price**