South of the River – the north-south divide

We all know that that there’s a north-south divide in Britain. If you look at any statistics in terms of wealth, health (but not happiness in my opinion) you find those pesky southerners are doing better than northerners. I should know, I grew up down there.

I remember being at my uncle’s house in Doncaster at some point in the seventies and seeing an advert for Tetley’s Bitter on the television. Two men approached the bar pleading to be served first. “I’ve just spent six months in Antarctica” says the first. “Maybe” says the second “but I’ve spent six months down south”. Boom boom.

The Guardian reported this week that the Government is pushing through a decision to delay revaluing business premises until 2017 unfairly penalising the north. This valuation sets the level of rates businesses have to pay. They currently pay on the basis of a valuation in 2008, at the height of the property boom. Property prices have fallen much faster in the north (on average), so the north loses again. By the way, business rates go directly to central government not to the local council.

And I see that the Arts Council is reorganising. In the new set up London and the South East get two regions, the whole of the north of England get just one region.

Of course the British north-south divide is more complicated than it looks at first. It’s actually a divide between London and its surrounding area and the rest of the country. You’ll find just as much poverty in Cornwall as you will in Yorkshire.

You will also find plenty of poverty within London itself. Some of the most deprived communities in the country are just a few miles from the millionaire’s mansions of Westminster, Belgravia and Mayfair. As you go east from Westminster, life expectancy declines dramatically, just as it does in Leeds if you go south from Alwoodley to Middleton. There’s actually quite a bit of wealth in the north. You see it’s more about class than geography. Averages tell an important story, but can hide some crucial facts.

Then there’s the north-south divide within cities. Jean Mortiner wrote eloquently about her experiences of the divide in Leeds a couple of weeks ago. It rang a lot of bells for me. My daughter went to high school out of the area. Sleepovers were ever popular, often with 10 or 12 girls crammed into one house. Except when we hosted the sleepover. Only a few hardy souls dared to let their daughters come to Beeston!

What is it about the southern parts of cities? As I’ve mentioned I grew up in London. My school was just on the north bank of the River Thames and lots of my friends lived south of the river. In the hackneyed (geddit?) old cliché, cab drivers would go “Saarff of the river – this time of night?”. Clapham, Battersea and Stockwell were very unfashionable, but I found them perfectly pleasant neighbourhoods when I visited my friends.

Chicago has its Southside and Los Angeles the South Central district, both home to poor black families. Newcastle has a whole other city to the south of the Tyne and whilst I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure Gateshead is the poor relation.

My Other Half has been accused of “elective downward mobility” because we live in Beeston. Surely, this is actually just taking a more rounded decision about where to live. In other words, do you buy a house as an investment or because it’s in a nice place to live? Do you want to spend all your money on a mortgage in a “good” part of the city, or have enough left over to live a decent life in an allegedly not-so-good part of the city?

But Jeremy, you’re forgetting education, I hear you cry. You have to buy near a good school for the sake of your children. I’ve touched on what makes a good school before, so I won’t re-hash the arguments. The important thing to remember is that school only contributes about a third to a child’s education. Family life is just as important and I would suggest you can provide a more nurturing atmosphere if you’re not struggling to pay the mortgage.

So I say three cheers for the unfashionable end of town, the wrong side of the tracks. It’s where the interesting people live, people who are interested in communities, real lives and don’t measure others by the size of their bank balance.

Now, if someone could bring me a step ladder I’ll get down off this high horse. There will be more of Jeremy’s views from South of the River next Friday. In the meantime, you can follow him on Twitter – @BeestonJeremy

2 Replies to “South of the River – the north-south divide”

  1. It’s not always the south side of cities that’s the poor side. In Britain because the prevailing wind is from the west and therefore in the days when lots of domestic smoke and smells from industrial processes were common the posh side was on the west and the pleb (if I’m allowed to use that word) side was on the east. It’s largely true in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield, York and Leeds and perhaps other cities i know less well.

    In some cities it’s the north side that’s poorer than the south – Manchester and Sheffield being probably being the best local examples.

    Two things that would help level up the north south divide:

    (a) A proper regional policy which encouraged long term investment in the less
    affluent areas
    (b) A revaluation of Council tax bands.
    If you compare average values of Band D properties in most of the north with most of the south east you find that the latter have increased in value considerably more than properties of the same value in the north since the system started in 1991. E

    People in areas where house values have increased most should pay more council tax and central government reduce their contribution to such areas and increase it to others. Of course, by and large Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituencies are those areas where house values have increased most so don’t hold your breath waiting for this change…

    A more maverick idea which I favour would be to move the seat of government to the north so more of the great and the good realise that it’s not grim up north…

    1. Thanks for your comments Steve, trust you to know so much about social geography!

      I think moving the seat of power away from London is an interesting idea. Over on the Guardian Northerner blog, Martin Wainwright points out that the Church of England’s twin power bases are Canterbury and York, and not London, although the Archbish does have a residence in Lambeth. The Civil Service and the BBC have started to move with the Department of Health now here in Leeds and the BBC opening Media City in Salford. I felt the last government’s policy of holding Cabinet meetings outside London was too much of publicity stunt, but at least it showed a willingness to try new approaches. Let’s hope the trend continues.

      What do other readers think?

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