Snapshot of UK regional economic inequality

economy Jun 27, 2019

We hear a lot about UK regional economic inequality, so as part of our series of macroeconomic snapshots we’re taking a look at some of the data.

These are just a few examples of recent announcements of businesses facing closure or insolvency in the immediate or near term: British Steel, Scunthorpe (c.3,000 jobs), Honda UK, Swindon (3,500 jobs), Kerry Foods in Burton-upon-Trent (900 jobs). What they all have in common is that they are situated in the regions outside London.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing carnage in the High Street retail sector which according to the British Retail Consortium’s calculations has cost 75,000 jobs since the first quarter of 2018.

The long decline in UK manufacturing, initiated in the 1980s Thatcher era, has hit the regions of the north and Midlands, and S. Wales, particularly hard.

In January this year NIESR (National Institute for Economic and Social Research) calculated that since the mid-1990s regions that now have reduced shares of the national economic pie are the North West (-1.8%), West Midlands (-1.4%), Yorkshire and the Humberside (-0.8%), and the North (-0.4%).

The ONS (Office for National Statistics) list of the top 10 most deprived UK towns and cities are Oldham, West Bromwich, Liverpool, Walsall, Birmingham, Nottingham, Middlesbrough, Salford, Birkenhead and Rochdale. In their most recent report, they took into consideration metrics like low incomes, levels of employment, health, education and crime.

By contrast, real output rose twice as fast in London as in other regions over the 10 years to 2017. The “the Golden Triangle of London, Cambridge and Oxford that attracts over half of all research funding – more than £17bn” while just £0.6bn goes to the north east, according to Newcastle on Tyne MP (Lab) Chi Onwurah.

Also, according to the 2019 Global Cities report released today by consultancy firm A.T. Kearney, London has been ranked as the top city in the world for future business investment.

Of course, none of this disparity is a revelation. The 2010-15 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition prioritised cutting public spending in the short term over all other objectives, including regional equality and long-term social cohesion. One of their first acts was to abolish the regional development agencies. But in 2014 the then chancellor, George Osborne coined the phrase Northern Powerhouse, a recognition, and arguably a u-turn, that action was needed on UK regional economic disparity.

There is some evidence that the north’s economy has strong foundations, with productivity growing at a faster rate than in London between 2014 and 2017 and jobs being created at a greater rate than the UK average.

According to new report from TheCityUK, the trade body says the number of people employed in the financial services sector in Wales has jumped by over 20%, about 11,000 people. There has also been a 10,000 rise in the West Midlands, 12,000 in the East of England, and 24,000 in Yorkshire and Humber. Conversely, the number of financial workers in London has dropped by 10,000 since 2016, and by 32,000 across the South East of England.

However, with a £3.6bn cut in public spending in the north of England since 2009/10 and 37,000 fewer public sector workers, there is also evidence, reinforced by IPPR figures in May, that the Northern Powerhouse has been “undermined” by austerity, with power and resources “hoarded in Westminster.”

There is clearly a long way to go before the UK’s regional economic disparities are anywhere near to being reduced.

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