The recent election has led many people to divide the country into the north vs. the south. At Westminster there has been much talk about the northern “red wall”, about “levelling up”, and even about the number of Greggs in an area as an interesting correlation with voting behaviour.
Economic geography matters to politics and policy so it’s good to see such issues at the forefront of debate. But people desperate to divide the country into north vs south ignore the nuances in locations and overlook the reality faced by many regardless of latitude. A political narrative that focuses on the north as left behind and the south as rich may lead to a new set of people questioning whether the system works for them. This raises the question of whether it makes sense to divide the country into two and put so much political attention on reducing this gap.
Our analysis – found here – shows that for a range of economic indicators it is too complex to divide the country in two. To say incomes are high in the south and low in the north is an oversimplification of the truth. If we analyse the country by levels of weekly pay, there is a clear bubble of high pay around London and the home counties, but in the rest of the country we see is a much more mixed picture.
Looking at weekly pay, it is clear that life is nowhere near as prosperous in the South West of England as the “poor north vs rich south” narrative implies. Weekly pay in the South West is more similar to the levels seen in Wales and the North West of England than it is to pay in the South East. Even in the South East, there are pockets of low pay – for example in deprived coastal communities such as Thanet and Hastings. Despite relatively high pay, about a quarter of Londoners live in poverty once the capital’s extortionate housing costs are taken into consideration.
What is evident from all of the data above is that splitting the country in two does not work, particularly when no one seems certain of where that line would be drawn. The research resonates with previous SMF work in this space, showing the poor performance of coastal communities, inequality within regions and the need to tackle persistent low pay in particular areas.
The ambition to raise the economic performance of all regions of the economy is welcome – but narratives that focuses too much on particular locations rather than underlying economic performance could ultimately mean damaging neglect of regions that contain pockets of deprivation.
Improving productivity, education attainment and infrastructure should be at the top of the government’s list of priorities but it should look at ways of doing this that do not simply involve moving money out of London or the south of England. A good place to start would be investments in adult education, in retraining and a reduction in health inequalities – across the whole country.
Kathyrn Petrie, chief economist of the Social Market Foundation