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Britain’s North/South Divide Concept: A Reality?

Whenever I go back to my hometown, ‘up North’, during the holidays, my family likes to tease my accent for gradually getting progressively more Southern on each visit. The taunting is just a light-hearted joke within my family. However, this drove my attention to research just why such an opposition exists between people of the North and South. I have heard my family in the past talking about “just how easy those Southerners have it compared to us” and anger amongst my home community when they see more and more cuts to public transport links, whilst London enjoys rapid expansions to its infrastructure. This anger is part of a wider set of debates commonly posited as the ‘The North South Divide’.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that over 80% of Britain’s most struggling cities are situated in the North. Furthermore, a geographic division in self-rated health inequalities emerged from a study by the BMJ, noting how 5.1% of people in the South-East present with poor health compared to 8.1% of people in the North-East and Wales. It is statements such these that demonstrate the notion of a divided Britain: two unequal masses, the prosperous South and the deprived North.

Britain has experienced significant structural change over the past century. Notably deindustrialisation and de-regulation brought about during Thatcher’s premiership from 1979. However, these changes and their impacts have not been equal in terms of their distribution – the North has borne the brunt. Data from the journal, Spatial Economic Analysis published in 2010 exposes multiple work-related inequalities that exist in Britain. Although all regions in England have witnessed great reductions in manufacturing, reduced employment in this sector was much greater in the North with 3,233,000 manufacturing job losses compared to 2,236,000 in the South from 1979-2009. North-South variations can be seen in other forms of employment representing unequal access to certain job markets. Private sector work displays an employment pattern that imitates well with the North-South divide. Vast areas in the South enjoyed plentiful access to jobs in the private sector with employment growing by 2,333,000 from 1979-2009.

Education is another field that is useful to touch on when considering the reality of a North/South Divide. It is well documented that education in not equal across Britain, evidenced by differential levels of educational attainment and of uptake of higher education. England’s former chief inspector of schools also recognises this correlation, illustrated through Ofsted ratings, finding that there are 135,000 more students educated in inadequate schools in the North and Midland England than the South. This has directly impacted GCSE attainment with 4% lower GCSE levels being found in the North and Midlands compared to the South.

It may be easy then to suggest that a North/South divide does exist and can explain all inequalities prevalent in the UK. The picture, however, is not quite as clear as the facts above may demonstrate. For example, considering the uptake of jobseekers’ allowance, one may presume that uptake in the North would be far higher than uptake in the South, due to higher levels of unemployment. This is generally correct; however, certain anomalies do buck the trend. York was ranked within the lowest 6 cities, with ≤6.5% of its population on jobseekers’ allowance, a rate the same as in Oxford and Reading.

The conceptual existence of the North/South Divide can be evidenced to a certain degree. It can be, at times, problematic to use geographical locations to treat their inhabitants as homogeneous masses.  The North-South Divide concept, however, on the most part, allows for a straightforward and evidenced understanding of the inequalities that quite evidently exist in Britain.


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