YouGov just polled nearly 8,000 people to prove the existence of the English Midlands

Watford Gap, the traditional boundary between north and south. Image: Wikipedia.

YouGov, a pollster so committed to attracting the attention of journalists that it once literally polled an argument that Stephen Bush and I were having in the office, is at it again. It’s polled the people of the nine official English regions on whether they considered themselves to be in the north of the south, lit the blue touch paper, and retired to Twitter.

This is quite obviously a fantastically silly question: three of the regions literally contain the word “north”, two the word “south”, and two more the words “Midlands”, so you can probably predict where this is going.

The regions, mapped. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But I’m a sucker for this sort of thing – a Venn diagram mapping interest in regional identities, unanswerable questions and silly polls designed to wind up the internet up would have, in the middle, a picture of my face – so let’s have at it, and see what we can learn.

Here are the results, in map form:

Click to expand.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of residents of the north west (92 per cent), north east (91 per cent) and Yorkshire & Humber (91 per cent) regions think they’re in the north. This is no surprise, really, because they very obviously are.

But the north east result still gives me pause for thought. I can believe that a few people in Cheshire (the north west) or north Lincolnshire (Yorkshire & Humber) don’t think of themselves as northerners. But who are these 9 per cent in the north east who don’t think it’s the north of England? Are they holding the map upside down?

The results are only very slightly less emphatic in the south. I can believe 13 per cent in the South West think that’s somehow not “the south”: only 3 per cent think, bafflingly it’s the north, with 7 saying it’s neither, so maybe in their mind it’s “the West Country” or some such.

But I’m a bit confused by the other results. What explains the 3 per cent in the South East who think they’re in the north? I can believe some Oxfordshire residents who think they’re in the Midlands, but the north? Are these people just winding us up?

And as to the 12 per cent of Londoners who don’t think it’s in the south, what’s going on there then? Especially since the southern English identity is, to the first approximation, the Home Counties one – the places from where people commute to London. How could London not be in the south of England? Does southern just mean “votes Tory” now?

It’s in between, though, where things get complicated. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people in the Midlands (65 per cent in the West Midlands, 62 per cent in the East Midlands) don’t consider themselves to live in the north or the south. Which is probably no surprise because the region is literally called the Midlands, a reference to the fact it’s in the middle between the north and the south.

But Midlanders are more likely to consider themselves northern than southern. That may reflect the quirks of regional geography: several of the region’s major cities (Nottingham, Derby, Stoke-on-Trent) are in its northern half. Then again, it may be a more psychological thing, a sign that people feel more affinity to the outsider northern identity than the establishment southern one.

At any rate, most people in most regions clearly aren't falling for YouGov's tricks and are pretty insistent that the Midlands are neither in the north nor the south, thank you very much.

And then there’s the East of England, which is by far the most confused in its place. Okay, only 4 per cent of people there reckon it’s the north, and they are all, clearly, mad. But the rest are more divided than their peers in any other region: 57 per cent say they’re in the south, 35 per cent say neither.

To be fair, the east of England is a bloody stupid idea for a government region anyway. It’s divided between the London commuter suburbs of Essex and Hertfordshire; the more distant Cambridgeshire & Bedfordshire, which are outside the capital’s footprint but nonetheless tend to look in its direction; and the relatively rural and self-contained counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.


It’s never been clear to me why these places belong in a single basket. Places like Watford or Brentwood have more in common with other M25 towns in the South East region than they do with rural Norfolk. My suspicion is that there is a much stronger East Anglian identity, but that it covers too small an area and too few people to be of much use in government statistics, so they stuck it onto a chunk of London commuter territory.

Or, to put it another way, these eight government regions are, in my considered opinion, a load of old cobblers. I can demonstrate this using a single fact: if you get on the Metropolitan line of the London Underground at Northwood and travel four stops west, you’ll pass through three of the blasted things.

Anyway, I think we can safely say this exercise has conclusively proved three things:

1) The official government regions have nothing whatsoever to do with how most people actually view their region of England;

2) YouGov is trolling me;

3) I fall for it, every time.

Has anyone coined the term “Trollster” before? If not, I’m coining it now. YouGov is a social media-savvy trollster. Good for them.

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

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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