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. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

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