An objective and scientific explanation for why everyone hates South London

The great divider: the Thames, c2004. Image: public domain.

Here's one last thing we learnt in our recent London demographics odyssey. We're not going to lie to you: this one's a bit silly.

South London, one often senses, feels a bit hard done by. The Tube barely touches it; black cabs do their best to avoid it; and consequently those who live there are frequently to be heard whinging about the impossibility of getting anyone to make the arduous trek from the other side of the Thames to visit it. That's changed a little, in recent years, but nonetheless, the parts of the city that are either famous or fashionable are more likely to lie on the north bank of the river.

Partly, this is simply a matter of history: the original Roman London lay on the north bank of the Thames, and the majority of the city's central activity zone remains there. But, just possibly, geography and demographics are a factor, too.

In 2011, the Boundary Commission for England divided the capital into its northern and southern halves. The latter got the 11 boroughs south of the river and Richmond, which is bisected by it. That left the north with 20 boroughs, and the City of London.

You can see instantly that the north is just, well, bigger: the curve of the Thames means there's simply more land north of the river than south of it.

That applies to population, too. Even when South London gets custody of suburbs like Twickenham, in the part of Richmond which lies on the Middlesex bank of the river, it still contains just 40 per cent of the city's population.

Source: 2011 census data.

Here’s a bar chart of the boroughs by population, and colour-coded to show which side of the river they’re on. The most populous borough, Croydon, is  south of the Thames; but the next four are all north.

Source: 2011 census data. Click to expand.

However you cut it, North London is bigger than South London. The obvious (and entirely objective, scientific, etc.) conclusion is that the reason North London seems to dominate the city is that, mathematically, it does.

Grumpy South Londoners may respond that all this is a bit unfair – that we’re counting east and west as part of the north. And that’s true, but:

1) We’d posit that east and west Londoners are more likely to identify with north than south. The Thames does represent the city’s main psychogeographic fault line: there is a reason we call Barking “East London” but Woolwich “South East London”. And anyway:

2) The Boundary Commission started it.

Or, to put it another way, the next time you're wondering why North London gets all the love, it's because it is, objectively – scientifically – more important. Sorry, guys.

If you’re interested in reading more chart-based ramblings on London’s demographics, why not check out the following.

Drawing the boundaries

The rise of the suburbs

A question of density

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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