1. Economics
March 4, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 12:02pm

The north-south divide in England's unemployment rate is basically the size of a chasm

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We made a terrible mistake with this piece. While we originally talked about the rate of unemployment benefit claims among the young (e.g 16-24 year olds), due to a screw up, the data we used was actually that for the general unemployment benefits claimant rate. Ooopsie.

These things happen – but we pride ourselves on our accuracy, however belated, so we’ve edited the piece to reflect that fact, and published a separate piece on the actual youth unemployment rate. Apologies. 

I have a problem. It isn’t a huge problem, in the grand scheme of things – it’s certainly tiny, compared to one I’m actually meant to be writing about in this post – but it’s a pain in the bum nonetheless. It’s this: I am running out of ways of expressing quite how shocking England’s north/south divide is.

When you spend any time looking at data on Britain’s cities, you see, this is a theme that comes up rather a lot. It doesn’t feature in everything, of course, but it features vastly more frequently than it would in a country that wasn’t quite so ludicrously divided as this one.

And so, more often than not, when I write these blogs, I have to talk about it. House prices? North south divide. Population growth? North south divide. Productivity? Oh, there we go again. Public investment? Sit down, this may come as a shock.

It’s appalling how often you can spot this divide in the data. It’s insane, when you realise that, in 2011, at least, South Yorkshire had lower GDP per capita than Slovakia.

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I’m a lifelong Londoner, and pretty much as out a touch a metropolitan liberal as you might find, yet it is a source of constant bafflement to me that we’ve all just accepted this chasm down the middle of the country as if it’s a fact of nature. Why do we put up with this? Why is there not more rage?

Anyway. Rant over. Let’s look at some numbers.

This week, we’re looking at unemployment as expressed in the “claimant count” – that is, the proportion of the workforce claiming out of work benefits. The claimant count is not a perfect measure – those with working partners, or financial savings, are no longer eligible for Jobseekers Allowance, so aren’t counted. But it gives a snapshot, and best of all, it’s recent: this data is from January 2016.

Let’s see what it reveals – whether there might be any, I don’t know, geographical patterns in this data, or something?

Here’s an interactive map. You can hover over the dot to get the data for each individual city.

My god, there’s a shock. The lowest claimant counts are in the south. The highest are in the north. Well who could possibly have seen this coming?

That map, if anything, downplays the extent of the divide. Here’s the same data as a bar chart. We’ve coloured the bars by region (“Greater south east” is London, plus the South East and East of England regions).

Click to expand.

The vast majority of southern ones have relatively low unemployment. The vast majority of northern cities have relatively high unemployment. The Midlands and Wales are in pretty poor shape, too, while Scotland is fairly divided.

Two questions arise from all this. The first is, what is going on in Barnsley, to make its unemployment rate is so much lower than most of the north?

York, the other northern city doing pretty well on this measure, is rich. Barnsley isn’t. We’re at a bit of a loss to explain this one, as it seems are the local papers – but do write in if you have any insights.

The other question is more existential. It’s this:

Why has one half of this England never risen in armed revolt and attempted to kick the living crap out of the other half? What is wrong with this country?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and tweets too much.

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