When the headlines at the start of last week focused on the disparity of job creation between the North and South of England, it wasn't all that much of a surprise. The North/South divide is an age old fact of England, and being a Yorkshireman in London it's something I know a fair bit about. Along with Thomas Piketty's use of Jane Austen comparisons, references to this ancient divide highlight the regressive economic situation that we live in in 2015. However, it is not as simple as this; aside from sounding a bit daft, the insistence on using this divide inhibits our economic understanding.
I come from Sheffield, which is spitting distance from Derbyshire and yet Sheffield is defined as Northern and Derbyshire as the Midlands. This is inevitable with how these borders work, but it isn't all that helpful. The Centre for Cities report last week, which inspired the aforementioned headlines, on the state of UK cities in 2015 has a health check for the 68 cities they identified in the UK. While it may be true that the North has less robust job growth than the South, this obscures the complexities and subtleties of English economies. Newcastle for example is far further north than Sheffield, and being a port town relatively near the Scottish economic centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow, will have a completely different economy. Much the same can be said of different Southern cities; take Plymouth and Cambridge, the former is far more industrial than the latter, whereas Cambridge has the highest level of high level qualifications of any UK city.
This is not to say that there isn't a divide between the North and South; clearly the North has had a harder time recovering from the financial crash than the South. However, the economic classification is arbitrary; just being a Southern city doesn't causally affect a city to succeed economically. Swindon for example has fared pretty badly in recent years, with real wages there falling 3.8%. Equally, the North West region had the highest growth in GVA per head (a measure of the value of the economy and contribution to it) of 2013, with Manchester in particular growing significantly. Just being Northern though didn't help Merseyside, whose GVA growth was nearly half that of Manchester's.
And what of the Midlands? Left out of this equation in the North/South divide is a whole other swathe of the country. Birmingham has serious problems with unemployment, inequality and skills. The West Midlands had the largest decrease in unemployment according to ONS labour market statistics released this week. Conversely, the East Midlands (along with North Lincolnshire) had the biggest decrease of GVA amongst regions of its type in 2012. Where does this fit into the North/South divide?
Once you go down the route of looking at the factors left out by the North/South divide, it becomes a rabbit warren. What about the East/West divide of the country? The East is a target area for UKIP; the West is a target for the Green party. The East has some of the lowest unemployment in the country whereas the West (there is no 'West' only North West and South West) has both high and low unemployment levels. And then there's the rural distinction; by design and name, the Cities Outlook report leaves out rural areas (and their poverty problems), but what does that do to the picture? Considering that the rural county of Cornwall is the poorest region in the country, what does that do for the North/South divide?
Clearly the economic make up our country is very complex; it's not even the rest against the South-East, because London is a myriad of contradictions; poverty jammed right next to the 1%. There is no uniform rule, not all Northern cities perform badly, not all big cities necessarily have more jobs; all I know is that if we are going to fix this economic mess we are in, we are going to have to grow out of focussing on the North/South divide.