Doubt thrown on thesis of polarised UK

The Institute of British Geographers' annual conference

The image of Britain as an increasingly polarised society in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer may be flawed and out of date, a researcher said yesterday.

Daniel Dorling, of Newcastle University, told the Institute of British Geographers' annual conference that the nation may now be on its way to greater equality in some respects.

Dr Dorling, a geographer who has researched negative equity and the 1991 census results, questioned the heavy emphasis placed on inequality by Labour's commission on social injustice. His investigation, still in its early stages, suggests that Labour needs to think carefully about the way in which it sells itself to the voters as the party that will attack inequality. "There is basic, massive inequality," he said, after giving his lecture at the conference in Northumbria University, Newcastle

upon Tyne. But while this grew markedly in the late Seventies, when Labour was in power, and in the early Eighties it may be declining.

Dr Dorling concentrates on the geography of deprivation: the difference in people's life chances between rich and poor wards in cities. He said that the overall trend was for neighbourhoods to become more socially mixed, with a wider variety of income groups living close together. The place where a person was born and grew up had less impact on his or her chances in life than it did a generation or two generations ago.

Unemployment appeared to have become more evenly distributed in geographical terms and among the different social classes. Ownership of cars and homes and access to higher education had spread to a wider section of the population through the 1980s.

But Dr Dorling conceded that inequalities in earnings and mortality appeared to be still growing. The collapse of the housing market at the end of the 1980s had been a great equaliser, wiping out much or all of the capital of millions of homeowners. "A lot of affluent people have become worse off," he said. Nonetheless, negative equity was more prevalent among the new, 1980s breed of relatively low income first-time buyers than among longer established, wealthier home owners. Dr Dorling said researchers had a difficult task in assessing trends in inequality because of a dearth of data. The Inland Revenue would not disclose local statistics on income and one of the most authoritative bodies, the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth, was wound up by the incoming Tory government in 1979. There was also a growing tendency for people on low incomes to be self employed. They tended to under-declare their earnings and work partly or wholly in the black economy, making it harder to asses how poor the poor we re.

The South-east, Britain's most affluent region, received 60 per cent of the sweeping income tax cuts of the 1988 budget, even though it has only one third of the population, Chris Hamnett, Professor of Human Geography at King's College, London told the conference. The region's take-home incomes were boosted by £1.6bn a year by the elimination of most higher tax rates. It amounted to a reversal of the established policy of injecting money into the poorest regions.

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