The north-south divide in England's unemployment rate is basically the size of a chasm

Barnsley Main Colliery, which closed in 1991. The town now has one of the lowest youth unemployment counts in the north. Image: Getty.

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: We made a terrible mistake with this piece. While we originally talked about the rate of unemployment benefit claims among the young (e.g 16-24 year olds), due to a screw up, the data we used was actually that for the general unemployment benefits claimant rate. Ooopsie.

These things happen – but we pride ourselves on our accuracy, however belated, so we've edited the piece to reflect that fact, and published a separate piece on the actual youth unemployment rate. Apologies. 

I have a problem. It isn't a huge problem, in the grand scheme of things – it’s certainly tiny, compared to one I'm actually meant to be writing about in this post – but it's a pain in the bum nonetheless. It's this: I am running out of ways of expressing quite how shocking England's north/south divide is.

When you spend any time looking at data on Britain's cities, you see, this is a theme that comes up rather a lot. It doesn't feature in everything, of course, but it features vastly more frequently than it would in a country that wasn't quite so ludicrously divided as this one.

And so, more often than not, when I write these blogs, I have to talk about it. House prices? North south divide. Population growth? North south divide. Productivity? Oh, there we go again. Public investment? Sit down, this may come as a shock.

It's appalling how often you can spot this divide in the data. It's insane, when you realise that, in 2011, at least, South Yorkshire had lower GDP per capita than Slovakia.

I'm a lifelong Londoner, and pretty much as out a touch a metropolitan liberal as you might find, yet it is a source of constant bafflement to me that we've all just accepted this chasm down the middle of the country as if it's a fact of nature. Why do we put up with this? Why is there not more rage?

Anyway. Rant over. Let's look at some numbers.

This week, we're looking at unemployment as expressed in the "claimant count" – that is, the proportion of the workforce claiming out of work benefits. The claimant count is not a perfect measure – those with working partners, or financial savings, are no longer eligible for Jobseekers Allowance, so aren't counted. But it gives a snapshot, and best of all, it's recent: this data is from January 2016.

Let's see what it reveals – whether there might be any, I don’t know, geographical patterns in this data, or something?

Here's an interactive map. You can hover over the dot to get the data for each individual city.

My god, there's a shock. The lowest claimant counts are in the south. The highest are in the north. Well who could possibly have seen this coming?

That map, if anything, downplays the extent of the divide. Here's the same data as a bar chart. We've coloured the bars by region ("Greater south east" is London, plus the South East and East of England regions).

Click to expand.

The vast majority of southern ones have relatively low unemployment. The vast majority of northern cities have relatively high unemployment. The Midlands and Wales are in pretty poor shape, too, while Scotland is fairly divided.

Two questions arise from all this. The first is, what is going on in Barnsley, to make its unemployment rate is so much lower than most of the north?

York, the other northern city doing pretty well on this measure, is rich. Barnsley isn't. We're at a bit of a loss to explain this one, as it seems are the local papers – but do write in if you have any insights.

The other question is more existential. It's this:

Why has one half of this England never risen in armed revolt and attempted to kick the living crap out of the other half? What is wrong with this country?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and tweets too much.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.