It’s not the south east of England that’s rich: it’s the south middle

Poor but sexy? Southend in 2004. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

If there’s one thing everyone knows about the economy of the United Kingdom, it’s that the south east of England is rich. In Scotland and the Midlands it’s a rather more mixed picture, and much of Wales, Cornwall and the north is actively depressed. The south east, though? Minted.

There’s just one problem with this factoid: it isn’t entirely true.

Most of the problem here is with the word “east”. Considered as a whole, London and its hinterland in the Home Counties is by far the richest part of the country. Broken down into individual cities, though, the picture gets rather murkier.

Here’s a map showing average weekly wages earned in the UK’s biggest cities in 2016. By and large, the widespread assumptions about economic geography hold true: rich south, poorer north, Scotland doing its own thing and so on.

But look at the cities to the east of London. Chatham is in the bottom third, and Norwich fifth from the bottom.

Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, the Essex seaside town of Southend – a community of around a quarter of a million souls, with two different train lines that’ll get you to the City of London in less than an hour – has the lowest wages in the whole country.

We can over-state this. These are wages paid for those who work in cities, not for those who live in them: much of Southend’s population commutes west into London, where the money is rather better. What’s more, the basic pattern of a richer south and poorer north clearly does hold true, which is why we bang on about it quite so much.

Nonetheless, having been trawling through this data for over two years now, I’ve found that this other, lesser known pattern holds true, too. Cities to the immediate east of London are not nearly as rich as those to its immediate west.

To show up the differences more clearly, the following maps only show cities in the south of England. Here’s GVA per worker, a measure of productivity:

The most productive southern cities are those in the middle of the country. Those on the south or east coasts are weaker, while Peterborough and Norwich are right at the bottom with the cities of the far south west.

Here’s the employment rate:

It’s a slightly different map – for one thing, London is at the less employed end, while Southend is doing alright. But across the Thames estuary, Chatham is relatively weak, as are Ipswich and Luton. Again, though: best west of London is a better bet than being east.

This pattern can be seen in some of the factors that drive economic data, too. This one is GCSE results:

This time the stragglers are Ipswich, Peterborough and new entry Crawley – but the broad pattern holds yet again.

Last one, I promise. This one’s a different measure of qualifications: NVQ4 basically means “some higher education”, so this time the light dots are cities with very low numbers of graduates.

I don’t even need to label any cities this time because it’s just the usual suspects. Chatham, Southend, Ipswich, Peterborough.

Every time, you’re better off west of London than you are to its east.


There are a few things that might be going on here. One is that the area west of London has better economic infrastructure: plenty of fast trains and motorways; easy access to Heathrow, which lies at the western end of London; a healthy smattering of great universities. The M4 corridor is also stuffed with high value businesses like tech firms: that’s probably both cause and result of this disparity.

Then again, perhaps the disparity is rather more historic. The eastern counties are peripheral rather than central – marshier, more prone to Viking invasions and so on. The direction of the Thames means that east London was historically where the docks have been, making this side of the country more industrial in nature.

Lastly, the eastern sides of many cities around the world are poorer than their western sides, a phenomenon that’s been credited to prevailing winds tending to drive pollution eastwards. Such patterns often persist into the 21st century in things like snobbery around the best places to live.

But I’m speculating wildly: the bottom line is I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that the idea of the rich south east of England is an over-simplification. Really, it’s the rich south middle.

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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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.