13 Stark Truths About Britain’s North South Divide

Economically speaking, north of Birmingham is a different, less successful country. posted on

1. It’s been a long few years, but the economy is recovering.

Not much of a recovery, but it’s the only one we’ve got.

2. Unfortunately, if you don’t live in London, you may not have noticed.

Since the end of recession proper in 2009, most of the growth in Britain’s economy has happened within a 50 mile radius of Charing Cross – and the rest in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The north and the midlands have not grown at all.

3. In London, this is all you see - cranes, cranes everywhere, building things.

Getty / Peter Macdiarmid

The number of construction cranes is a pretty good gauge of a city’s success, and in London, there are lots. According to figures collected by the Health and Safety executive, there is one crane for every square kilometre. In the North East there is just one per 120 square kilometres.

4. Since September last year, 96% of employment growth has been in London, the South East, the South West and the East of England.

Yorkshire is not doing too badly, and the East Midlands has recently been storming ahead. But the North West, North East and West Midlands are actually all still losing jobs.

5. If you live in Liverpool however, this is a sadly more common sight.

Getty / Christopher Furlong

This is Toxteth, in Liverpool’s inner city. It has never been a particularly wealthy area, but like many similar suburbs and small towns, it is struggling more than ever now. Whole streets are abandoned - many thanks to a botched government scheme intended to regenerate them.

6. You’re more likely to die early in the north.

It’s true that London is pretty bad for early death too - but London is getting better while the north gets relatively worse. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, in 1965 men in the north were 16% more likely to die under the age of 75 than men in the south. By 2008 they were 20% more likely to.

7. The growing divide is even visible at football matches.

Even Manchester United fans couldn’t balance out the recession.

8. So it is pretty clear that the north-south divide is getting worse. Oddly, this isn’t actually what anyone expected.

Those are newspaper headlines from 2008. Lots of economists thought that because it had most of the boom, London would have most of the bust too - losing financial and construction jobs in particular. That’s what happened in 1991, when Britain last had a significant recession.

9. But in a way, it shouldn’t be surprising. The north south divide has been widening for a century.

Getty / Harry Todd

That’s Harold MacMillan. As prime minister in 1962, he gave a speech arguing that:

“If we do not regard it as a major Government responsibility to take this situation in hand and prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south, I am sure our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.”

His successors are reproaching him. When he spoke, 30% of the population of England lived in the north. Today, it is closer to 25%. Relative decline slowed a little during MacMillan’s era - largely thanks to policies designed to reduce the clout of London - but it never stopped.

10. The explanation is in the sort of industry located in each area.

Ever since Elizabeth Gaskell wrote North and South in 1853, the north has had relatively more manufacturing and rather less services. Towns like Middlesbrough and Barrow-in-Furness grew up because they were close to coal seams, which provided fuel for steel mills and shipyards.

Those sorts of jobs have been in decline for almost a century. In the 1990s and 2000s, government spending replaced some. According to the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester, fully 64% of jobs created in the north between 1998 and 2007 were the result of government spending. But this government is now cutting many of those jobs too.

11. And London is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking the most talented people south.

One of the reasons why the north has struggled to create many of the best-paying sorts of jobs is that London sucks people south, usually when they graduate from university. It then spits them back out to commuter towns in the south east when they hit their 30s.

According to data from the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, more than 20% of graduates move to London within six months of finishing their degrees. Only half of London’s graduates are originally from the city - the rest come from elsewhere.

12. So how do we reverse the flow? It will be difficult, but the place to start is here.

Getty / Gary M. Prior

Unlike smaller towns and cities such as Middlesbrough or Hull, the north’s big cities - Manchester and Leeds especially - have done quite well in the past twenty years. Their big universities attract lots of clever young students - including some from the south, some of whom stay in the cities after graduating.

If more graduates stayed in cities such as Manchester - or moved to them after graduating - those cities would be more attractive to employers. Enough young, affluent professionals would create what economists call agglomeration benefits - that is, the more clever people are squashed into one place, they more productive they become.

13. That will be hard - the pull of London is strong. But it might not be impossible, largely because of this:

This is not a good thing: it would be better to build more houses in London to reduce the cost. But one positive side effect is that as London’s house prices rise faster than those in the north, cities such as Manchester will become relatively more attractive to businesses and workers.

So yes, London renters - take solace: your suffering may at least save the north.

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