Portrait of Britain: one nation, many divisions

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The Independent Online
THE CLAIM that there is a North-South divide does not do justice to the complicated regional picture of the UK, shows yesterday's report to the Prime Minister. The country does have pockets of poverty and pockets of prosperity, both of which can lie either side of a line drawn across the map.

As Mr Blair put it, you could not cross a wider gap than travelling from Macclesfield in the morning to Moss Side in the afternoon. The report shows the poorest boroughs in London jostling with Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham at the top of the table of most deprived local authority districts in England.

The capital, in fact, has 16 of the 50 worst districts for multiple deprivations such as poor housing, high crime rates, high unemployment and ill health. In addition, a higher proportion of London households - nearly one in five - live in poor conditions than those in any other part of the country.

The report also points out that variations within regions on some economic and social indicators can be wider than variations between regions. For example, national output per head in London is 25.4 per cent above the UK average, while in the North-east it is only 82.5 per cent of the average. But within the North-west the range goes from Sefton, with 61 per cent of the average to Halton and Warrington at 19 per cent above average. Within Yorkshire, the range goes from 65 per cent (Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham) to 127 per cent (York).

There are many other indicators where it would be hard to spot a firm regional split in the numbers. The regions all look similar in terms of some social indicators such as rates of cigarette-smoking and alcohol intake, average class sizes in primary schools or small business survival rates.

But in other areas a North-South divide is impossible to miss. One of these is perhaps the most basic of all: mortality rates. Wealth is good for longevity, with the City of London, Guildford and Three Rivers enjoying the lowest mortality rates. The North-east and Scotland suffer the highest.

In the jobs market, too, the division is clear. Though the gaps between regional unemployment rates are lower now than they have been for 20 years, the South-east has far lower unemployment - 3.7 per cent last spring - than the North-east, which has 10.1 per cent. The South-east also has the highest proportion of its working age population in employment, the lowest proportion of the workforce with no qualifications and the lowest proportion claiming benefits.

The bottom line is that the average disposable income per head stands at pounds 11,084 in London and pounds 10,559 in the South- east (in 1997, the latest figures) compared with just pounds 8,464 in Northern Ireland and pounds 8,661 in Scotland. This dispersion is likely to get wider despite policies such as the minimum wage, because the basic distribution of income between the well-paid in the rest is growing more unequal.

Of course, those living in the prosperous and crowded South-east pay a price for it. Their housing is far more expensive. The typical London house price is twice the Northern average, and private sector rents are more than twice as high. But it still leaves Southerners able to afford more dishwashers, home computers and CD players than Northerners.

At least the UK fares better than some other EU countries in terms of regional disparities. West Germany has the widest gap, between the former East Germany and the rest.

There is a North-South divide in Italy, where the Southern Mezzogiorno is far poorer than the North. France and Belgium have a regional division that, like Britain's, are the legacy of industrial decline.