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Britain's North-South Divide: How it affects education, economy and gender pay-gap?

David Barnett looks at the long-standing differences between living in the north or south of Britain and asks how it will fair in a post-Brexit world

David Barnett
Monday 19 December 2016 13:27 GMT
Demolition of industry in Sheffield 1980
Demolition of industry in Sheffield 1980 (Rex)

Is there a North-South divide? Well, that of course rather depends on which side of it you’re living, and how insular you are in your life.

If you’re a Southerner, you might well conceive of the North as a cold, rainy, industrial place where people thrive on lard and cigarettes and speak in guttural, unknowable tongues. That’s if you even consider the North at all. To the Northerner, the South is brash and bold and overflowing with money, an oligarch and a Pret on every corner, where Britain might as well end at Watford.

I jest, of course (we’re all natural comics in the North, you know), but only wryly. We have Pret in the North now, and our football clubs are owned by a whole host of international investors, from Egyptians to Americans to Iranians.

Yet, there are more things that divide us than unite us… the important things. For example, the average wage of a working woman in Camden is £560 a week (source: while in Hartlepool it’s far less than half that at £252. And the gender wage gap is far more pronounced in the North… in Hartlepool the average male wage is £497 compared to his Camden brethren’s £679.

Still, we need less money in the North, right? You can buy a whole street for tuppence-ha’penny, yes? Not quite, and we do have our property hotspots (try Ilkley, or Harrogate, or much of Cheshire) though we do happily boggle at professional Londoners paying through the nose to share a broom cupboard with a family of rats.

Some more statistics for you. Of the ten cities in England with the lowest employment rates, eight of them are in the North. And although at 11-years-old children in the North are roughly on track with their Southern counterparts in terms of educational attainment, by the age of 16 the gap has widened markedly.

Of course, there are efforts to change things. You’ll have heard, no doubt, of the Northern Powerhouse. Which is, in the words of Andrew Percy, the lucky minister given responsibility for it, “our ambition to bring together the great cities, towns and rural communities of the North of England and Wales to become a powerhouse for our economy. We will achieve this with modern transport links, a revolutionary new style of governance and increased investment”.

Go to the government’s Northern Powerhouse website and you’ll find one of those corporate videos soundtracked by upbeat muzak and featuring a dizzying blur of statistics and promises and claims. Low corporation tax, highest rate of international investment, £150 billion spent on health, a GDP of £350 billion.

Closure of industrial town in Midland of England 1980s (Rex)

On it goes. It all sounds very impressive. But what does it all mean? In real terms, the success of the Northern Powerhouse concept hinges on transport; HS2, the high-speed rail infrastructure linking the major cities of the North to London, and HS3, which will connect the major centres of the North, from Liverpool to Hull.

One of the North’s newest MPs is Tracy Brabin, who sits for Labour in the Batley and Spen constituency in West Yorkshire, the seat vacated when MP Jo Cox was murdered by right-wing extremist Thomas Mair. For her, the Northern Powerhouse is a particular sticking point.

“When George Osborne was chancellor one of his priorities was the Northern Powerhouse,” she says. “Although there was plenty to criticise about his plans and intentions, at least he recognised the problem and held it high on his agenda.

“The current Government don’t seem to care about the Northern Powerhouse so much, but if they do mean to build a country that works for everyone, it will need to work for the north too.”

“The Northern Powerhouse is a gimcrack politicians’ vote saver,” declares Mike Harding. Yes, that Mike Harding — The Rochdale Cowboy, musician, folk singer and Northerner. And someone, at 72, with a lot to say on the North-South divide. He adds, “We don’t need massive infrastructure vanity white elephants like HS2 - we need a better rail link between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull.”

I speak to Harding on the North-South divide partly because he is very eloquent and learned on the subject, and partly through a vague sense of mischief. Folk music to most in the UK is one of those quaint, Northern things, Arran jumpers and strong ale in an old Saxon mug, songs about the unfairness of life. Yet, why not a folk singer as commentator on politics, especially one as veteran as Harding. Would we baulk at soliciting Bob Dylan’s opinion on US politics?

Like Harding, Tracy Brabin finds the actual inconsistencies and differences between funding and infrastructure in the North and South problematic.

“There is a clear North-South divide in the UK,” she says. “Not only in economic terms but in other areas such as health, life expectancy and now, availability of services.

“If you take transport as an example, the spending per head is 12 times in London what it is in Yorkshire. Crossrail 2 is already underway before the original Crossrail has been completed, which is fine, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those in my constituency who have poor bus services and long out of date trains to use.

“A root cause of the problem is that decisions are made in Whitehall departments by people who are overwhelmingly from and live in the South. By way of example, look at the response to the Social Care funding crisis, the Tories ‘solution’ is to raise council tax, now that may work in Local Authority areas like Windsor and Maidenhead but in Kirklees there simply isn’t the council tax base for a percentage rise to make enough of a difference.

“Last December thousands of businesses and homes were seriously affected by flooding, the Government’s response in September was a £12.5 million investment in water pumps and defence systems.

The sun sets behind the swollen river Thames which has burst its banks in Marlow, England (Getty)

“In Marlow, Buckinghamshire £8.5 million is being poured into one anti-flooding defence system after 23 properties were flooded in 2014, compare that the thousands of homes and business in Yorkshire, can one seriously deny the existence of a North-South divide?”

The North-South divide is not a new thing – it’s been steadily widening since the Industrial Revolution says Harding. He adds, “The things which built the British Empire — cotton, wool, coal, iron, steel and shipbuilding — were almost all to be found north of the Severn/Wash line.

“The Welsh Valleys of course played a big part but the majority of the heavy industry was concentrated in the North. Just one example… In the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester there is a massive steam engine used to haul iron ore over the Drakensburgh Mountains in South Africa - made here in Manchester at the workshops of Beyer and Peacock.”

At the height of the Industrial Revolution and the years that followed, the North was the workshop of Britain… the dirty stuff was kept well away from, for example, the Garden of England. And when the industries began to fail, the divide widened further.

Mike Harding again: “The South largely ignored the North except as a source of revenue and manpower - the drift to the South for work is nothing new. When we entered the great Tory sell off and shut down of our industries the North suffered most.

Spools of thread are transported from a spinning machine to a winding machine at Abraham Moon and Sons woolen mill in Guiseley. Abraham Moon which was founded in 1837, run the last remaining vertical woolen mill in England, with the dyeing, blending, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing processes all taking place on site. The mill produces fabrics for both the clothing and furnishing industries, supplying brands such as Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and Paul Smith (Getty)

“In some cases the decline was rapid - cotton towns like Oldham lost their mills over a period of a decade or so, and Salford Docks and Trafford Park likewise were closed and sold off in a relatively short time. Cities like Manchester have managed better in that the influx of commerce and students into the city has seen something of a boom. Smaller towns like Barnsley and Wakefield have been trashed by the loss of their single industries.

“Get on a train from Leeds to London as I do regularly and you will see how, once you have left Doncaster you find yourself in another country of small towns and villages with little sign of heavy industry or any real decline.”

Brabin agrees: “The North is in a fairly unique situation in that we had clusters of communities that were based around a certain industry, mining in South Yorkshire or the mills in Batley. As those industries have disappeared, especially over the past 30 years and the legacy of Thatcher, a mistrust of Westminster has set in.

Spools of assorted coloured thread are stored in metal crates before being woven at Abraham Moon and Sons woolen mill in Guiseley. Abraham Moon which was founded in 1837, run the last remaining vertical woolen mill in England, with the dyeing, blending, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing processes all taking place on site. The mill produces fabrics for both the clothing and furnishing industries, supplying brands such as Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and Paul Smith (Getty)

“Only meaningful devolution, with new investment and decisions for the North made in the North will breathe life back into communities that feel left behind.”

It is, of course, highly unlikely the North will ever return to its Industrial Revolution days as the engine room of Britain. But it would be churlish not to accept that the Northern Powerhouse and related initiatives are at least a step in the right direction. What’s needed is to ensure that Northerners have the same chances, opportunities and privileges as those in the South… which is something the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, is looking at with the launch of Growing Up North, a new project that hopes to redress the balance.

Anne Longfield, who launched the initiative in December, says, “The economic disadvantage of the North is well established but as a place for children to grow up the reality is far more complex. Whilst there are parts of the North where children fall behind there are places where they excel.

“The regeneration underway provides a unique opportunity to reshape prospects for children in the North. I want every child, wherever they are born, to get the same opportunities and support to prosper. To do this, we need to understand why children do better in some parts of the country than others and what it is about the place they grow up in that supports them to succeed. Growing up North will put children at the heart of discussions about Northern regeneration. It’s time to leave the North-South divide behind.”

But how do we do that? Perhaps a start might be devolution of power from Westminster to the North.

One of the most exciting things happening in politics right now is Andy Burnham’s campaign for Manchester Mayor,” says Brabin. “An enormous city region who will elect a new mayor to shape how services are run and how they can shape lives. Look at what Andy is taking about around education, business and transport, there’s a real opportunity there and I won’t be surprised if more of the North starts to call for those kinds of powers.”

That’s something Harding would like to see too. “We need a regional assembly or at least we need greater powers devolving back to Northern Municipal councils - the amount of power that has flown from our cities to Whitehall is depressing,” he says.

Save Our Steel Rally, Sheffield, Yorkshire, Britain (Rex)

There’s one rather large elephant in the room of the North-South divide, though, and that’s Brexit. It is popularly perceived that the Leave campaign was driven by disaffection of older Northerners. As it happens, the numbers are closer than many in pro-Remain London might think. The South East, for example, voted 51.8% to leave. The North West was 53.7%, Yorkshire and the Humber a little higher at 57.7%. Certainly not landslide figures for the Leave camp, but enough to swing it. And a vote that might come back to bite a lot of people on the backside, thinks Harding.

“We are exposed daily to the North-South divide through the waste of lives and jobs and futures, the replacing of careers with zero hour minimum wage gig jobs, and we see it all around us in the vanishing remains of the industries that once dominated our lives.

“The Northerners who have moved South recognise it but few Southerners are aware of much beyond their immediate environment. You only have to look at the voting patterns to understand that though with the rise of UKIP and the turmoil that now faces us post-Brexit that too is changing though not in any way we can predict.”

So what’s the outlook for the North in 2017? Tracy Brabin says, “ We can only hope that the situation is going to improve in 2017, councils are under phenomenal pressure and ‘business as usual’ cannot be maintained.

“For me one area we could do much better is vocational education. I’ve been on a committee scrutinising the Government’s upcoming apprenticeship legislation, hopefully with the new Apprenticeship Levy our students will be better equipped for the world of work they are entering.”

Mike Harding is less optimistic: “When Brexit comes the people in the North who thought they were voting for change will realise that the things they voted against were caused not by Europe but by Thatcherism, asset stripping and free market economics. When they find themselves in a decade of stagnation and find that they are losing money in real terms then we may find that we are in for a very bumpy ride.”

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