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Economy / Jobs

These maps show the polycentric nature of southern England

The south east corner of England, it may surprise you to learn, is just a teensy bit in thrall to the great big city in the middle of it. London is the heart of the region’s economy; London is the destination of most of its trains. Once, all roads led to Rome; today, most English motorways point vaguely in the direction of (you might want to sit down for this) London.

Commuting patterns are both a cause and an effect of all this. The region’s transport network was designed, in large part, to make it easier for people in outlying towns to get to their jobs in London.

Once that infrastructure existed, though, it increasingly made sense for businesses to base themselves in the capital, where they could tap into the entire region’s labour pool – rather than in, say, Guildford, where they couldn’t.

So the process became self-reinforcing. The easier it was for someone to get from a town to London every morning, the more likely commuters were to live there, and the greater the demand for decent transport links. Several decades later, the result is that an entire quarter of England is, in some ways, one big dormitory town for London. Eurostat, for one, consciously counts it as such.

The thing is – not everyone in the Home Counties who travels any significant distance for work does work in London. Some of them never go to London at all.

To make this point, the geographer Alasdair Rae has come up with some maps. He’s a researcher and lecturer in the department of town and regional planning at the University of Sheffield, and an increasingly frequent star of these pages, and last week he decided to illustrate that polycentric nature of the south east. To quote his blog:

I’ve removed London from the equation, both in relation to travel to work flows and from the underlying map canvas. This gives a slightly different perspective than the one we’re used to.

Consider this map, showing how people commuted around the region in 2011. The labels refer to local authorities.

Suddenly you can see that many areas which are dormitory suburbs for London – Reading, Medway, the towns of Surrey – are also commuter hubs in their own right.

Even so, commuting patterns still often follow major transport arteries. Look at the line running immediately south from London: that’s the Brighton main line, there. Or look at the routes heading north east towards Ipswich, east to Southend, or south east towards Canterbury: all of those show people travelling along major rail links every day.

You can see some of these patterns more clearly, if you zoom in:

Actually, you can see those patterns best from the journeys that  aren’t happening. Check out the gulf north and east of London, between Harlow and Chelmsford: there are no trains there, and no motorways either, so relatively few people cross that gap for work. The area north of Reading, in the west, or Aylesbury, in the north west, are similar examples.

So – London isn’t the only commuter destination in south eastern England. But the capital dominates nonetheless. Here’s what happens when you throw it back into the equation:


In other words, London isn’t everything in the economy of the south east. Merely, most things.

All maps republished with the permission of Alasdair Rae. You can read his original blogpost on this here.
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