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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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.