8 reasons we should stop assuming “northern” means “pro-Brexit”

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Image: Getty.

Northern England is Leave-land. Everyone seems to agree on that, from Leave-supporting Labour MPs worrying that being seen as anti-Brexit will kill the party in towns like Hartlepool, through to the hardcore Remain supporters who gloated when Nissan announced cutbacks to its Sunderland factory. And on the flipside, the South – especially London – is the Remain heartland where everyone is a champagne-swilling metropolitan elitist.

Only… things can’t be that simple. Northern England is a big place – using the government’s definition of the North, it has approximately 15 million residents, representing a quarter of the UK population, and it includes five of the country’s 10 largest urban areas, as well as vast tracts of farmland and national park. Talking about the North as a big Brexit-voting monolithic entity loses all the detail and nuance.

Here are eight facts that prove it.

1) Many regions within the North were majority Remain – and many down South were majority Leave

It’s no secret that the big Northern cities saw Remain majorities. The fact Manchester and Liverpool both saw Remain pushing 60 per cent in the referendum isn’t going to blow any minds, nor will the narrower Remain leads in Leeds and Newcastle.

But South Lakeland, a very rural district in Cumbria centred on Kendal, isn’t anyone’s idea of a Remain stronghold. Nor is Harrogate – for all its wealth, this safely Tory area on the edge of Leeds has a lot in common with many parts of the Home Counties that saw chunky Leave majorities. These areas voted 53 and 51 per cent Remain, respectively.

Other places in the North where most people voted Remain include Sefton, Stockport, Trafford, the Wirral and York – and although results were never announced for these towns, demographic modelling suggests Chester, Durham, Hexham, Macclesfield and Tynemouth can join this list too.

Travel to the other end of the country, and although there’s more Remain Yellow on the map, there’s also lots of Leave blue. Five of London’s 32 boroughs voted Leave, as did most of the districts immediately around London like Slough, Sevenoaks and Epping Forest.

Until I put these maps together, I hadn’t noticed that the Leave vote in the London Borough of Havering was actually higher than anywhere in North West England. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

2) Everywhere has large numbers of Leave and Remain voters

But what about, say, Sheffield? The fact that the city was declared for Leave was a major shock on the night, but the actual numbers are slightly less shocking: 51 per cent of Sheffield’s voters went for leave, 49 per cent went Remain. That’s an incredibly thin margin, even smaller than that of the nationwide result.

Demographic modelling suggests Sheffield Central had a Remain vote of around 69.6 per cent, putting it alongside wealthy London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, while Sheffield South East had a Leave vote of around 66.4 per cent, making it more Leave than Thanet, the only place with an actual UKIP council.

These very different areas sit alongside each other and largely cancelled each other out. The brain, which struggles at the best of times with comprehending hundreds of thousands of people at once, boils this down so Sheffield becomes a homogeneous Leave-supporting blob on the map.

Even in towns like Sunderland, where Leave’s victory was emphatic at 61.3 per cent, that still means that 38.7 per cent – nearly 4 in 10 – of those who voted chose Remain. That adds up to 51,930 Remain voters, enough to fill the Stadium of Light to capacity. Put them all on double-decker buses, the traffic jam would stretch 7km.


Blue is Leave, orange is Remain, pale colours are roughly even. There are a lot of pale areas. Image: Wikimedia Commons

3) The North has an awful lot of people – but not necessarily enough to stop Brexit alone

Quick question – which coastal urban area has more Remain voters: Brighton & Hove or Tees Valley?

In percentage terms, it’s an easy win for Brighton, but the raw numbers actually tilt towards Tees Valley, which has 120,000 Remainers to Brighton’s 100,000. Of course, this is because Tees Valley has a larger total population, but it still means that there’s a good chance that there are actually more Remain voters supporting Middlesbrough FC than Brighton & Hove Albion.

By the same principle, with so many millions of voters in Northern England, there are enough Remain voters (3.4 million) or Leave voters (4.3 million) to fill a city the size of Bristol several times over. There are more Northern Remain voters than it’s possible for the brain to comprehend.

Nevertheless, that means Northern England Leave’s margin of victory was just over 900,000. Nationwide it was over 1.2 million. No matter how you slice it, narrowly winning the North wouldn’t automatically have changed the result of the referendum – it would have taken even more voters either from the North, or from other parts of the UK.

4) Differences aren’t as big as percentages make it look

Imagine a speed-dating event where the residents of Newcastle (51 per cent Remain) get paired off with those from Sheffield (51 per cent Leave) solely according to their Brexit preferences. If 50 voters from each city showed up to this dystopian date night, almost all of them would be paired off, with just one Sheffield Leaver and one Newcastle Remainer single at the end. Although the cities voted in opposite directions overall, you could say the electorates of Newcastle and Sheffield are 98 per cent alike.

This scenario is a useful way to think about what voting differences mean in the real world. If you take two groups and have them mingle, how many in each group would really disagree with each other?

For a more extreme example, we can take Londoners (59.9 per cent Remain, 40.1 per cent Leave) and North Easterners (42.0 per cent Remain, 58.0 per cent Leave). Any newspaper will tell you that the difference between metropolitan London and the industrial North East is possibly the biggest divide in England and marks the two opposing camps of the culture war. And yet, of every 10 London voters who showed up to our speed-dating scenario, you’d expect 8 of them to find a partner from the North East. The great cultural divide seems less scary when you realise the sides are over 80 per cent alike.

5) Non-voters narrow the margins further

So far I’ve been careful to always refer to voters rather than just people. The EU referendum had the largest turnout of any nationwide vote for decades, but it was still only 72 per cent. In some places, it was very low indeed – Belfast West saw just 48.9 per cent turnout. And that doesn’t take into account the people who weren’t even eligible to vote in the first place, such as immigrants without the right citizenship, people who were underage at the time, and those who simply didn’t register in time.

The people of Sunderland aren’t really 61.3 per cent Leave, because turnout was just 64.8 per cent: less than 40 per cent of those eligible to vote went out and voted Leave, while 25 per cent voted Remain. The other 35 per cent of the electorate never voted at all (of course, this doesn’t mean they didn’t have an opinion on Brexit). If you include people who weren’t eligible to vote, the number gets even lower. Of the 278,000 or so people who live in the borough of Sunderland (admittedly, a figure that includes children), just 82,394 voted Leave. That’s less than 25 per cent of the population. Pick a random Mackem, and there’s a three in four chance they didn’t vote Leave.

So let’s repeat our speed-dating experiment, but include everyone who was registered to vote. Now, of every 10 Londoners that show up we’d expect about 3 Leavers, 4 Remainers and 3 non-voters, while our 10 North Easterners would typically include 4 Leavers, 3 Remainers and 3 non-voters. Nearly everyone’s going home with someone now.

6) Opinion polls show Remain gaining ground in the North

Anyway, that’s the past – what about the future? As the chances of a second referendum slowly increase, opinion polling companies have continued to ask people whether they consider Brexit a mistake, and whether they would vote Remain or Leave in a future referendum. Here’s where things get genuinely surprising.

Since November 2018, every YouGov poll that has included a regional breakdown has shown Northern England more Remain than Southern England by a significant margin (average Remain lead is 9.4 per cent in the North and just 3.4 per cent in the South). Admittedly, YouGov counts London separately from the South; but its definition still includes major Remain cities like Brighton, Bristol and Oxford.

It’s like watching Parliament vote down the deal in real time. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray, based on YouGov data.

7) Referendums don’t work like elections anyway

In the end, what does it really matter that Newcastle voted 51 per cent Remain? Nearly every Remain vote cast in the city was cancelled out by a Leave one, so Newcastle only had the tiniest effect on the nationwide total – and that was almost exactly countered by the narrow Leave vote in Sheffield. Unlike normal elections, where just a tiny vote increase can win you lots of marginal seats, there’s no prize for flipping a district in a referendum.

On the other hand, in a normal election there’s no value in increasing your vote share somewhere where you’ve already won. There’s also not much point winning voters in places where you’re really far behind. In a referendum, every vote counts. It doesn’t matter whether you live in London or Grimsby, your vote is exactly worth the same as everyone else’s. So it doesn’t matter if a majority of Sunderland voters did vote Leave – every Remain voter in Sunderland counted too.

8) In general, stereotyping is just a bad idea

Fine, there isn’t any data to back this up, but it should be self-evident. If Remain wants to win over Northerners – Leavers, non-voters and wavering Remain voters alike – it needs to treat them as individuals. It’s easy to let lazy thinking obscure this, and imagine the whole North is some monolithic racist hive-mind – just as it’s easy to imagine London is a chardonnay-scented Remain blob.

I could have pointed that the most Leave-voting districts aren’t in the North at all but the Midlands and near the South Eastern coast, but to be honest, everything in this article applies to those places too. Not everyone in the Midlands or Wales is Leave either, nor is every Scot a Remainer. Geographic stereotyping has plagued the national atmosphere for too long. If we ever want to end the toxic divisions in society, this is where we have to start.


How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?

Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.