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Recession helps break down North-South divide: Tim Kelsey examines the findings of the latest survey of regional trends

BRITAIN is emerging from the recession a more homogeneous society, in which few of the traditional distinctions between North and South remain appropriate, according to the latest survey of Regional Trends, published yesterday by the Central Statistical Office.

The annual report includes statistics drawn from the 1991 census and, for the first time, provides information on the distribution of social class, of ethnic population, on housing and on long-term illness. It is the most comprehensive report of its kind produced by the CSO.

There are clear indications of the way the recession has acted as a social leveller between regions. The traditional conceit that blue-collar workers are to be found predominantly in the North and white-collar workers in the South is out of date. There is little difference in the distribution of manual and non-manual across regions. In the South-east, 30.7 per cent of working men are in managerial occupations. In the North, the figure is slightly lower at 21.1 per cent. In the South-east, skilled manual workers account for 26.9 per cent. In the North they amount to 34 per cent.

The recession hit the most prosperous areas of the country hardest. House prices fell between 1991 and 1992 most sharply in Greater London, the South-east and East Anglia. On average, the cost of a house as a multiple of average earnings fell from 4.12 in 1991 to 3.87 the following year. But in the North, North-west, Wales and Northern Ireland, prices rose during the recession.

The report confirms the traditional pattern of housing in the UK: terraced housing in the North; purpose- built flats in Greater London. House buyers in the South-east are generally better off than the North, commanding higher mortgages, as well as bigger pay packets. However, it is in the South-east that house repossession orders have grown most steeply: from 15,600 in 1987 to 31,100 in the South- east, excluding Greater London, in 1992. In the South-west, repossessions nearly doubled during the period from 5,300 to 10,300. In the North, there was a much smaller increase - from 4,700 to 6,400.

The South-east is the richest and in many ways the poorest region in the UK. It has the highest proportion of homeless households. There are 13.4 homeless households in every 1,000 in Greater London, compared with 7.4 in the North and 4.6 in East Anglia.

Home-owner occupation is another index of the way in which the recession has narrowed differences between regions. Between 1981 and 1991, the proportion of owner occupiers rose from 48 per cent to 61 per cent in the North; in Greater London it rose from 52 per cent to 62 per cent.

Unemployment has risen fastest in regions which had the lowest levels before the recession. The South-east now has a higher rate of unemployment than Scotland or Wales, for the first time. In January 1993, the level of uemployment in Greater London was 11.7 per cent - a figure surpassed only by Northern Ireland, which has the highest level, and the North.

In the financial sector, one in five workers in East Anglia lost a job during the recession; but in Wales, a traditional unemployment blackspot, the sector grew by 32 per cent.

Weekly incomes do, however, remain substantially higher in the South-east. One in five households in the South-east has a weekly income greater than pounds 650. This is four times higher than in Northern Ireland. But costs of living in the South-east are appreciably higher.

In the South-east and East Anglia, 20 per cent of weekly expenditure is on housing, compared to 15 per cent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Households in Scotland spent pounds 26 on motoring, compared to pounds 42 in the South-west. House insurance in the South-east costs about pounds 1.49 a week. In Wales it only costs pounds 0.91.

In spite of variations in income, there are few regional differences in the level of consumer goods owned by households. Two thirds of households in the North have a video machine - the same as Greater London; 94 per cent have a colour TV, the same as in the whole South-east.

Environmental indicators show that regions are shedding their stereotypes. The North, which was among the worst in the 1970s, is now one of the least smoky. Only the East Midlands and the South-west have lower levels of smoke pollution. - Regional Trends 28, 1993 Edition; HMSO; pounds 26.