“The old north-south divide is fading – and new fissures are emerging”

The Tyne Bridges in 2001. Image: Getty.

The north of England is as much of a myth as a material reality. Its particular economic, political, social and geographic qualities give it a unique character, distinct from the south of England.

Since 1980s de-industrialisation, the north has been characterised as a region in decline. But this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North is redressing this perception, by promoting the region’s vibrant culture and putting the fruits of its current artistic renaissance on show.

Yet among the flurry of exhibitions, performances, concerts and installations for locals and visitors to see, hear and play with, it’s becoming clear that the old north-south divide is fading – and new fissures are emerging in its place.

The rivalry between north and south has deep historical roots, which continue to shape the attitudes of people in both regions today. From the military successes of southern kings in the Middle ages, to the economic triumph of the south from the early 20th century onwards, historians have portrayed the south as dominating the north. By the end of the 19th century, the “southern metaphor” for an idealised English identity – typified by imagery of a bucolic rural idyll and in marked contrast to the industrial associations of the north – had won out, and the north fell outside common perceptions of “authentic” England.

Today, southern views of northern character often view northern qualities as truculent, insensitive, unsophisticated, intrusive and parochial. By contrast, northerners typically see themselves as independent-minded, straight-talking, practical, friendly and meritocratic. Southerners, meanwhile, are viewed as privileged, wasteful, unfriendly and nepotistic.

Yet the very developments in the north’s creative and cultural industries, which are highlighted by the Great Exhibition of the North, also point to changes in England’s economic landscape. As a result, these deep-rooted and divisive stereotypes could soon become very dated indeed.

The southern North

Across most regions of the UK, the creative sector (which includes the design, software and digital, advertising, film, broadcasting, architecture, publishing, music and performing arts industries) have supplanted the service sector (banking and finance) to become the fastest growing business sector.

This is evident in the emergence of “creative clusters” – agglomerations of businesses, workers and other important institutions, such as universities and business networks, relating to the creative industries. Some 47 creative clusters have been identified across the UK, and it’s perhaps unsurprising – given London’s long-established prominence in the cultural industries – that around a third of these are located in London and south-east England.

England’s creative clusters, mapped. Image: Nesta.

Yet just over one-fifth of the nation’s creative clusters are located in the North – traditionally thought to lack the cultural prestige of the capital. A report by innovation foundation NESTA reveals strong connections between clusters which are geographically close to each other: for example, clusters in Bristol, Bath and Cardiff in the south-west, as well as those in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool in the north.

Cities such as Sheffield to the east of Manchester, and south of Leeds, also feed into these northern clusters, together with towns including Warrington, Wigan, Chester, Crewe and Harrogate. This grouping strengthens the evidence for a distinctive “southern north” territory, independent from the “wider north” to be found to the south, east and north of this region (the Irish Sea in the west acts as a natural boundary).

The new divides

Manchester is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, while Liverpool and Leeds are also experiencing substantial property development and regeneration. This rapid economic growth is coupled with a geographic remove from other creative clusters in the north, which are centred on Middlesbrough and Newcastle – 42 and 68 miles north of Harrogate respectively.

There are strong media production and arts facilities across the southern North region: the growth of the Yorkshire area film and TV industries has outstripped that of every other part of the UK. Screen Yorkshire is unambiguously the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of the eight remaining English regional screen agencies.

This influence has tangible effects: most of what is seen of the north is captured in film, TV and pop music, which focus mainly on the former industrial heartlands of south Lancashire and west to south-west Yorkshire – probably because that’s where modern film and television industries are based. So it’s not just economically, but also culturally, that the southern North is rising to prominence on the national stage.

What’s more, experts suggest that the HS2 rail programme – which will reduce travel time between Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and London – is likely to draw the southern North even further away from the influence of the wider north, and towards southern cities such as London.

The ConversationSo, as Newcastle and Gateshead continues with the hard-won honour of hosting the Great Exhibition of the North, it’s worth reflecting on the definition of that label. Clearly, there are significant variations in economic and cultural output within the north of England. Before our very eyes, a new north-south divide is emerging, within what was previously understood as “the north” itself.

Alan Hughes, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Central Lancashire and Peter Atkinson, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader, BA Film, Media and Popular Culture, University of Central Lancashire.

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


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.