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

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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