The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.
If there’s one thing everyone knows about the economy of the United Kingdom, it’s that the south east of England is rich. In Scotland and the Midlands it’s a rather more mixed picture, and much of Wales, Cornwall and the north is actively depressed. The south east, though? Minted.
There’s just one problem with this factoid: it isn’t entirely true.
Most of the problem here is with the word “east”. Considered as a whole, London and its hinterland in the Home Counties is by far the richest part of the country. Broken down into individual cities, though, the picture gets rather murkier.
Here’s a map showing average weekly wages earned in the UK’s biggest cities in 2016. By and large, the widespread assumptions about economic geography hold true: rich south, poorer north, Scotland doing its own thing and so on.
But look at the cities to the east of London. Chatham is in the bottom third, and Norwich fifth from the bottom.
Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, the Essex seaside town of Southend – a community of around a quarter of a million souls, with two different train lines that’ll get you to the City of London in less than an hour – has the lowest wages in the whole country.
We can over-state this. These are wages paid for those who work in cities, not for those who live in them: much of Southend’s population commutes west into London, where the money is rather better. What’s more, the basic pattern of a richer south and poorer north clearly does hold true, which is why we bang on about it quite so much.
Nonetheless, having been trawling through this data for over two years now, I’ve found that this other, lesser known pattern holds true, too. Cities to the immediate east of London are not nearly as rich as those to its immediate west.
To show up the differences more clearly, the following maps only show cities in the south of England. Here’s GVA per worker, a measure of productivity:
The most productive southern cities are those in the middle of the country. Those on the south or east coasts are weaker, while Peterborough and Norwich are right at the bottom with the cities of the far south west.
Here’s the employment rate:
It’s a slightly different map – for one thing, London is at the less employed end, while Southend is doing alright. But across the Thames estuary, Chatham is relatively weak, as are Ipswich and Luton. Again, though: best west of London is a better bet than being east.
This pattern can be seen in some of the factors that drive economic data, too. This one is GCSE results:
This time the stragglers are Ipswich, Peterborough and new entry Crawley – but the broad pattern holds yet again.
Last one, I promise. This one’s a different measure of qualifications: NVQ4 basically means “some higher education”, so this time the light dots are cities with very low numbers of graduates.
I don’t even need to label any cities this time because it’s just the usual suspects. Chatham, Southend, Ipswich, Peterborough.
Every time, you’re better off west of London than you are to its east.
There are a few things that might be going on here. One is that the area west of London has better economic infrastructure: plenty of fast trains and motorways; easy access to Heathrow, which lies at the western end of London; a healthy smattering of great universities. The M4 corridor is also stuffed with high value businesses like tech firms: that’s probably both cause and result of this disparity.
Then again, perhaps the disparity is rather more historic. The eastern counties are peripheral rather than central – marshier, more prone to Viking invasions and so on. The direction of the Thames means that east London was historically where the docks have been, making this side of the country more industrial in nature.
Lastly, the eastern sides of many cities around the world are poorer than their western sides, a phenomenon that’s been credited to prevailing winds tending to drive pollution eastwards. Such patterns often persist into the 21st century in things like snobbery around the best places to live.
But I’m speculating wildly: the bottom line is I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that the idea of the rich south east of England is an over-simplification. Really, it’s the rich south middle.