Eastward Ho? Revisiting Britain’s ‘changed’ economic geography

Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meetLiverpool Echo 24-08-1989
Philip Larkin, 1958

It may have been George Osborne’s first, or fiftieth, or indeed nth (n being a very large number) mention of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme that had me leafing through some of my old cuttings. There were two in particular for which I was searching.

The first was a feature I wrote in the late 1980s about proposals for a ‘Transpennine corridor’ along the M62, a west-to-east ‘linear city’ that would regenerate the recession-ravaged industrial north. Local government rivalries, especially those between Yorkshire and Lancashire, would be swept away. It was, in short, the chancellor’s current scheme in all but name.

I had been put in touch by veteran PR man Len Baker with Justin Kornberg, an industrialist then based in Bradford. He was the driving force behind the Transpennine group, whose point man in Parliament was the MP for Great Grimsby, Austin Mitchell. The article was syndicated and ‘made’ in newspapers everywhere. Indeed, the Transpennine concept enthused people far from the Pennines. One suggestion was that the M62 linear city should form merely a section of a mighty ‘growth corridor’ stretching from Dublin to St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then officially still known).

Heady days.

Britain’s return to recession at the start of the 1990s pretty much put paid to the Transpennine idea. I had some enjoyable lunches out of it; then everyone moved on. John Prescott, deputy prime minister under Tony Blair, revived the notion in February 2004. Again, it pretty much fizzled out. This time? We shall see.

The second cutting for which I was searching was a piece I wrote for the Guardian in March 1998. Entitled ‘Seeing industrial progress in a different light’, it touched on the idea that the north-south divide was old hat and we ought to be looking instead at the differences between east and west. I wrote:

[T]he two economies are very different, the east having snaffled the lion’s share of emerging technologies and new industries along with a similar helping of  the sort of farming most susceptible to grand-scale mechanisation. The west, meanwhile, is short on prairie farms and long on coal mines, steel foundries, car plants and sheep.

The east-west divide was a far from original thought on my part. As far back as 1985, Phillip Whitehead, in The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies (Michael Joseph) concluded that the east of the country had done rather well out of the Fright Decade:

[T]here had been a remarkable shift in the geographical divide. Mainland Britain tilted eastward. The changing pattern of British trade, beginning before but intensified by British membership of the EEC [European Economic Community], was one reason.

Whitehead, a former Labour MP, listed others: science parks, the American-style farming of the ‘barley barons’ (supported by European subsidies) and new motorways. ‘The transformation of East Anglia from backwater to business hub was remarkable.’

Within ten years this had become pretty much the conventional wisdom and the inspiration for some genuinely fascinating articles on the business pages and elsewhere. The east of the country, it seemed, was simply better equipped to succeed in the modern economic world than was the west.

The east

  • was a region based on a string of smaller, stand-alone towns and cities – from St Albans through Leicester, Nottingham and Derby all the way up to Hull and onward – at a time when these were the sorts of communities that were attracting investment and jobs;
  • similarly boasted a string of agreeable university cities, including Cambridge, York, Durham and, over the border, Edinburgh – a big plus in a ‘knowledge economy’;
  • had benefited from a number of motorway and rail extensions and improvements, not least the electrification of the East Coast Main Line;
  • faced Europe, our main export market;
  • was, for the above reasons, a favoured location for the new businesses of the late 20th and  21st centuries.

By contrast, the west

  • was practically defined by large conurbations and areas of traditional industry, from South Wales through the Rhondda to Coventry, Birmingham, the Black Country, the Potteries, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire and, over the border, Glasgow and its environs;
  • suffered from the fact that these were precisely the sort of communities that were shedding jobs as the seemingly endless ‘shake out’ of heavy industry and manufacturing continued apace;
  • was afflicted too with congested transport links;
  • seemed far more prone to public disorder; the major riots of 1981 (outside London) were in Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds;
  • faced away from Europe;
  • was, for the above reasons, encountering difficulties attracting new businesses and thus jobs.

There was a stark illustration of where the centre of gravity had shifted in the late 1980s, with the siting of two major new car plants. Shunning the post-war ‘British Detroit’ that stretched from Cowley through to Longbridge, Ryton and Castle Bromwich (quintessentially ‘western’), Nissan chose Sunderland and Toyota located in Burnaston near Derby.

From this perspective, the Transpennine/Northern Powerhouse concept is less about regeneration of the north tout court and more about linking the clapped-out west of the northern region to the invigorating power of the east, giving, for example, poor old Merseyside a caffeine shot from the dynamism of the Humberside ports: Hull, Immingham, Grimsby and Goole (this last is not on the River Humber but still counts, apparently). The hope is that an invigorating, can-do spirit will bowl down the corridor from east to west like a bracing breeze off the North Sea.

Which is where my second cutting comes back in. The reference in the headline to a ‘different light’ comes from the introduction to a book entitled The English Counties by C.E.M. Joad (Odhams Press, 1948). He too was an east-west man, rather than north-south, and described the differences partly in terms of light. The east, Joad wrote, is ‘the England that braces’, boasting ‘clear, pale blue skies, the sky here being often the main feature’. And the west? ‘Here are softness of scene and water… In the western half, the characteristic colours are darker, purples and yellows and deep velvety browns.’

Joad did not attribute the east-west divide entirely or even largely to the light. Rather he saw it as expressive of genuine, deep differences. Thus the east ‘stands in the intellectual sphere, for theological heresy and moral controversy, for mathematics and metaphysical poetry and for physical science; in the political, for radicalism, reformism and sturdy individualism’. Cambridge is, naturally, its intellectual capital.

‘On the west is mysticism’, he writes. ‘The world is not all of a piece nor is there only one level of reality; what is more, unseen things lie very near to the surface of the familiar world. Here are pomp and pageantry and colour.’ Oxford is, equally naturally, its intellectual capital.

He could have added that Oliver Cromwell was an easterner to his fingertips while Oxford served as the royalist capital during the civil war.

In other words, the east is egalitarian, rational, Protestant and cheerful; the west is socially conservative, mystical, high church and melancholic. And, provided London is excluded, the division seems to hold. To take one example, the dividing line runs right through the middle of the historic county of Sussex. High church Chichester provides the ecclesiastical and administrative capital of West Sussex, which also contains a major centre of English Catholicism at Arundel. By contrast, East Sussex is traditionally low church with its own mini Bible Belt and its county seat in Lewes, whose ‘bonfire boys’ set fire to tar barrels and burn papal effigies with the sort of gusto that may alarm even seasoned observers from the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. Lewes was also home to Tom Paine, the radical reformer.

Now by this point, you may have noted one or two objections to the view that the ‘east is bright’. An obvious one can be found on Teesside, an industrial conurbation made up of Middlesbrough, Redcar, Billingham, Stockton and other communities and very definitely on the east coast. As indeed, a little to the north, is Tyneside. It may be possible to explain away one ‘western’ industrial cluster in the east, with all the problems that post-industrialism brings with it, but two?

Then there is the awkward fact that the first and most successful ‘linear city’ in Britain is nowhere near the east of the country. Quite the contrary. It is the M4 corridor, alias ‘Britain’s Silicon Valley’, running from Heathrow to Bristol via Windsor, Maidenhead, Bracknell, Reading, Swindon and Bath.

Most important, however, is the claim that the east is more successful than the west. Is it? Going back for a moment to Sussex, those bracing, clear-eyed easterners ought to be showing the languid, superstitious westerners a clean pair of heels in terms of gross value added, or GVA (a measure similar to gross domestic product except that it excludes both taxes and subsidies, thus making it suitable for sub-national economic data). According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the relative figures for GVA per head are £15,703 in East Sussex and £24,165 in West Sussex (the third part of the county, the city of Brighton and Hove, comes in at £22,972).

Could this be a freak? Alas, no. With one exception, the eastern parts of England perform poorly in terms of GVA per head in relation to their western counterparts: £17,381 in the north-east versus £19,937 in the north-west; £19,317 in the East Midlands against £19,428 in the West Midlands. East Anglia does not have a direct comparator, for obvious reasons, but its GVA per head of £21,897 is well below the UK average of £23,394. Yorkshire-Humberside straddles both east and west, and comes in at £19,053 and the city-state of London is also neither eastern nor western – it comes in at £40,215.

Which brings us to the one exception. The south-west, at £21,163, lags the south-east, at £25,843, but the comparison is scarcely shaming for the Wessex-ites, given they enjoy far, far fewer spill-over benefits from London than does ‘Roseland’ (from ‘Rest of the South-East’, i.e. ex-London).

Given that Eastward Ho! is looking rather more like Eastward? No, one has to wonder where the whole notion came from. One clue may lie elsewhere in the ONS’s huge data vaults. Add the populations of the north-east, East Midlands and East Anglia together and you get just over 13 million. That’s less than 25 per cent of the English population. Even with Roseland’s 8.7 million included, it is only a little over 40 per cent; and the economic wonders of ‘the east’ are usually described in terms of ‘Silicon Fen’, the ‘life sciences’ of Cambridge and similar, not antique shops in Surrey and yachting marinas on the south coast.

In other words, ‘the east’ is somewhere most people know nothing about; somewhere, to quote Larkin again, ‘where only salesmen and relations come’. It is therefore an ideal location for a comforting myth of new-tech dynamism and Europe-facing economic modernity, a sort of geographical version of the ‘creative’ or ‘knowledge’ economy that we are assured will maintain our place in the sun.

Just like ‘creative Britain’, it was a lovely idea. And, alas, equally untrue.


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