An objective and scientific explanation for why everyone hates South London

The great divider: the Thames, c2004. Image: public domain.

Here's one last thing we learnt in our recent London demographics odyssey. We're not going to lie to you: this one's a bit silly.

South London, one often senses, feels a bit hard done by. The Tube barely touches it; black cabs do their best to avoid it; and consequently those who live there are frequently to be heard whinging about the impossibility of getting anyone to make the arduous trek from the other side of the Thames to visit it. That's changed a little, in recent years, but nonetheless, the parts of the city that are either famous or fashionable are more likely to lie on the north bank of the river.

Partly, this is simply a matter of history: the original Roman London lay on the north bank of the Thames, and the majority of the city's central activity zone remains there. But, just possibly, geography and demographics are a factor, too.

In 2011, the Boundary Commission for England divided the capital into its northern and southern halves. The latter got the 11 boroughs south of the river and Richmond, which is bisected by it. That left the north with 20 boroughs, and the City of London.

You can see instantly that the north is just, well, bigger: the curve of the Thames means there's simply more land north of the river than south of it.

That applies to population, too. Even when South London gets custody of suburbs like Twickenham, in the part of Richmond which lies on the Middlesex bank of the river, it still contains just 40 per cent of the city's population.

Source: 2011 census data.

Here’s a bar chart of the boroughs by population, and colour-coded to show which side of the river they’re on. The most populous borough, Croydon, is  south of the Thames; but the next four are all north.

Source: 2011 census data. Click to expand.

However you cut it, North London is bigger than South London. The obvious (and entirely objective, scientific, etc.) conclusion is that the reason North London seems to dominate the city is that, mathematically, it does.

Grumpy South Londoners may respond that all this is a bit unfair – that we’re counting east and west as part of the north. And that’s true, but:

1) We’d posit that east and west Londoners are more likely to identify with north than south. The Thames does represent the city’s main psychogeographic fault line: there is a reason we call Barking “East London” but Woolwich “South East London”. And anyway:

2) The Boundary Commission started it.

Or, to put it another way, the next time you're wondering why North London gets all the love, it's because it is, objectively – scientifically – more important. Sorry, guys.

If you’re interested in reading more chart-based ramblings on London’s demographics, why not check out the following.

Drawing the boundaries

The rise of the suburbs

A question of density

 
 
 
 

What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?


NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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