Why calling it the “north-south divide” is a dangerous simplification

True levelling up will mean rising above false binaries

July 28, 2021
A food bank in Cornwall. Adam Murphy / Alamy Stock Photo
A food bank in Cornwall. Adam Murphy / Alamy Stock Photo

The belief in a social, economic and cultural “divide” between the north and south of the UK is so entrenched as to need no real introduction. Politicians of all stripes have lamented the continued existence of a gulf, from Jon Trickett on Labour’s left wing to Jake Berry, chair of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs.

It’s a concept often invoked in the media when discussing regional inequality of any form. A recent piece in the Guardian argued that the concentration of foreign direct investment in London and the southeast was evidence of “a large and growing north-south divide.” Another article concluded that the divide had been “accentuated” in recent years by public funding cuts that particularly impacted deprived communities outside of London and the southeast.

Where is the southwest in these discussions? As someone who grew up there, it’s frustrating to see how often the region is ignored in this way. Lumping the southwest in with the wider south conceals the obvious disparities between it and London and the southeast. More than that, the binary categories of “north” and “south” massively oversimplify regional inequality, to the detriment of effective policymaking.

With this in mind, it was a surprise to hear Boris Johnson acknowledge—at least to some extent—the complexity of the UK’s political geography in his recent levelling up speech: “The UK will never fit into some cookie-cutter division into regions named after points of the compass,” he said, explaining that it was the mission of his government to “build back better across the whole of the UK” and emphasising that inequalities are found within regions—not just between them.

Yet the speech has been roundly criticised for its lack of substance. While Johnson clearly made efforts to address concerns about the risk of “levelling down” London, he failed once again to demonstrate how levelling up would go beyond a neat slogan, instead outlining policies of only tangential relevance to what levelling up might be expected to mean and rehashing proposals from the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto. The government’s earlier attempt to flesh out its plans in the Budget in March was also widely panned. Labour has accused the government of “pork-barrel” politics over the Levelling Up fund, which turned out to have prioritised various more affluent Tory constituencies for assistance.

There will be many losers if levelling up proves to be a hollow electoral ploy, and the southwest will be among them. So much of the national debate around the policy has focused on the need to uplift left-behind communities in the north, and this must of course be a focus. But if we’re not careful, the discussion risks obscuring the very real needs of the southwest—and, for that matter, of areas of London and the southeast.

Take education. In his speech, the prime minister emphasised the importance of ensuring all children receive a “great education.” Progress on this goal cannot come soon enough for the southwest. Recent research from think tank Onward found that Dorset has seen the greatest fall in attainment at GCSE level of any local authority over the past two decades. It found that the southwest as a whole struggled, highlighting the drops in attainment in Plymouth, Cornwall, Somerset, Torbay, Swindon and South Gloucestershire.

Infrastructure is another area in which the southwest desperately needs support. Johnson discussed the need for greater investment in infrastructure during his speech, focusing particularly on improving transport links. He highlighted how the lack of public transport in the west midlands has harmed the local jobs market by making it harder for people to get to work. A 2019 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research North revealed that planned investment in transport in the southwest was only £651 per capita, compared to £2,692 in the west midlands. To give a real-world example of the impact of this underinvestment, the final bus from the town where my mum works to the village where my parents live leaves at 4:14pm.

Job insecurity and lack of opportunity are also key issues for the southwest. A survey of 15 to 17 year olds in Cornwall found that 70 per cent believed they would have to leave the county to find a good job. Is it any wonder, when more than a fifth of workers across the southwest are earning less than the real living wage? Work in rural and coastal communities is particularly precarious, given the number of seasonal, low-paid jobs. The TUC highlighted Devon and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire as areas with an especially high proportion of low-paid workers.

The affluence of many living in the southwest should not distract us from the deprivation found across the region. Coverage of the G7 summit in June drew some attention to the extent of poverty in Cornwall. The government’s latest statistics on deprivation revealed that 17 neighbourhoods in the county are among the 10 per cent most deprived in the UK. This is not an isolated issue. Social Market Foundation modelling found that the southwest as a whole has the highest rate of child food insecurity outside of London, with Devon found to have particularly elevated levels.

This is just a snapshot of the issues facing the southwest. The point is not to detract from the needs of other areas or to suggest that the southwest is more worthy of levelling up. But we need to add nuance to a picture—of a depressed north and an affluent south—that often feels too black and white. The reality is far more complex, with some of the UK’s most deprived communities living side by side with some of its wealthiest. If levelling up is to have any chance of success, its frame of reference needs to change. Otherwise, addressing regional inequality will become impossible.