London Special Report: Britain Drifts South – and Why Not?


The British Broadcasting Corporation wants 1500 of its staff to move to its new ”MediaCity” headquarters in Salford, near Manchester in northwest England. The Corporation, they say with some justification, is too southern, too much part of the metropolitan elite. The move ”addresses concerns that the organisation is not fully representative of the peoples of the UK.”

On the surface it looks like a good deal. On top of a £5000 payment, they have been offered £350 for each house-hunting journey as well as removal costs, a guaranteed house purchase scheme and and even £3,000 for new carpets and curtains. Other benefits include help securing jobs for spouses or partners jobs in the area and specialist help with children's schooling. For all that, take up for the scheme has been slow, and the Corporation’s grunts were unhappy to hear that the head of BBC North, Peter Salmon ”is the latest exec to announce that he would rather hack off his own face than move his family anywhere remotely near the north,” as ex-BBC producer Rod Liddle puts it.

The BBC’s difficulties in persuading its staff of the benefits of the North of England reflects a broader British predicament. Since the 1930s British governments have tried to use grants boost Britain’s depressed regions in the North of England, Wales and Scotland. None of this has stopped the long-term trend of population movement. Demographers Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas of Sheffield University point out that outside of London, all major cities are declining in population, and that ”the population of the UK is slowly moving to the South.”

Dorling and Thomas’s analysis of the 2001 Census drew criticism from regional dignitaries. Bob Kerslake, chief executive of Sheffield City council, and a champion of the lobbying group Core Cities insisted that ”there is already evidence of a turnaround in the last five years and every prospect of things getting better.” Denton and Reddish MP Andrew Bennet, Labour chairman of the Commons local government, housing and planning committee also claimed that ”in the regeneration of cities, the government’s proposals are working well,” while admitting that there were ”horrendous” problems.

Looking at what Dorling and Thomas say, it is not hard to see why the census should be so problematic for champions of a Northern resurgence.

At the start of the 21st Century, the human geography of the UK can most simply be summarised as a tale of one metropolis and its provincial hinterland… On each side of the divide there is a great city structure with a central dense urban core, suburbs, parks and a rural fringe. However, to the south these areas are converging as a great metropolis, while to the north is a provincial archipelago of city islands.

In recent years the decline of the North has at least been mollified by a relatively buoyant economy in contrast to the disaster of de-industrialisation that it was in the 1980s. Yet even still, the divergence is difficult to wish away. Most disturbing, much of the growth taking place in the North owes more to government spending that it does to private initiative. The public spending share in output is 52.6 per cent in the North West, 61.5 per cent in the North East, and 54.9 per cent in Scotland.

For housing, the importance is clear. With the provinces suffering greater or lesser degrees of depopulation, houses have to be cleared. In 2002 government plans to demolish up to 880,000 homes in northern England and the Midlands were announced. Gateshead, Newcastle, Blackburn, Manchester, Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham are all earmarked for substantial demolitions. In Liverpool alone, the council has to cope with 28,000 derelict homes. Long-standing development critic Simon Jenkins bemoaned the plans to knock down 100,000 Victorian terrace houses in the Welsh Streets area of Liverpool as they constitute precisely the “sort of buildings” over which yuppies “would purr” if they were in London.'.

The contrast between empty homes in the North of the country and the prospect of new building in the South offends people like Green Party’s London leader Darren Johnson who says that it is ”particularly ludicrous to have every single scrap of land in London and the South East being eyed up by developers, when the populations of other regions, such as the North West and the North East, are actually declining.”

Ros Coward, columnist for the liberal Guardian newspaper, protests that ”In the North-West, vast tracts of urban land lie derelict, while in the South-East … our countryside is under ever-increasing threat.” Uber-architect Richard Rogers takes a similar view, arguing that ”regional balance is critical to achieving a sustainable economy”. This is in the context of bemoaning the ”divided country” of the North and the Midlands with the ”bulk of redundant industrial land” and the South-East’ where the ”greatest pressure for new housing development” is felt.

Though he is cautious to spell it out, Rogers’s ”regional balance” could only achieved by relocating people up North. No doubt the chaotic workings of the economy do create unplanned waste and blight, but does anyone suggest people should be forced to move up North? Infamously Westminster Council housed its homeless out of borough, paying more outlying regions to take on the social problem. More recently the government imposed resettlement schemes on asylum seekers, forcing them into unwelcoming estates in Glasgow and elsewhere. Surely, everybody understands that in a free society you cannot direct people where to live, like Stalin did the Chechens in 1944 – or do they, particularly if the case can be made on ideological grounds, this time green instead of red.

It’s undoubtedly true that there is indeed a London-centric bias among British policy makers and media professionals. Deeply rooted in the gentrified boroughs of inner London, opinion-formers often treat the rest of the country with disdain. But it would be a mistake to see the population’s southern drift as the ascendance of the metropolitan chattering classes.

As important as London is to Britain’s economy, the more interesting area of growth is the south east region around London. The South East has the second highest GDP, and the second highest GDP per head of any region. London has the highest GDP, but it also has more of the very poorest people than the South East.

This is the heartland of Britain’s middle classes, first in the percentage of the population economically active and the fastest growing demographically. Coastal Brighton, 60 miles from London’s centre, is Britain’s fastest growing town. If the BBC offered its relocation package to move staff to Southampton or Brighton, there would be many more takers.

We cannot keep holding like Canute and wish away the shifting economic geography of Britain. It is something that has to be worked with. For cities and towns outside of the southeast that can mean some profound challenges. It is not easy to manage a downsizing without it appearing to be a rout.

But the demolition of old houses ought not to be seen as a disaster, so much as an opportunity. Britain’s ageing housing stock needs renewing. Simon Jenkins presumed to speak up for the “local community” of the Welsh Streets area of Liverpool, but Irene Milson and Mary Huxham of the local tenants and residents association saw things differently:

Far from it being "wrought" on them, residents in this neighbourhood have been campaigning to be included within the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders plan for over four years. The decision was supported in a survey of all Welsh Street residents, with a 72 per cent majority in favour of a clearance. … The campaigners, conservationists and critics don't have to deal with 125-year old properties that are damp, decaying and expensive to heat - let alone with collapsed Victorian sewage systems now over-ridden with rats.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with the population concentrating itself more densely in one part of the country than another. It is not as if it will tip up and sink. No doubt a perfectly planned society would achieve things less chaotically, but in a democratic society it is better to manage change,rather have planners reshape our society from above.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build: Why we need five million new homes, a director of, and a member of the 250 New Towns Club.

Photo by Feuillu

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It is indeed interesting that the areas in decline both in America and Britain where part of the industrial heartland. Liverpool seems to be like
Detroit both were industrial powerhouses and both declined with the the decline of manufacturing.

Both also produced musical legends. Detroit gave us Motown Records and Liverpool gave us the Beatles.

Both the UK and US old industrial areas are hurting

It is interesting that in the UK it is the area that built the industrial revolution that is hurting, likewise in the US. Recall that Birmingham and Manchester were hubs of the cloth business as well important to the iron business (along with Notingham). Both the US and UK have decided that playing with money is more useful than building things, so they value playing with money more. Both countries have infrastructure problems that continental countries do not, on the Continent the government decides what infrastructure is needed and it just plain gets built.