Life expectancy is now measured in gap years, says Roger Ratcliffe – the north-south gap

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The scene was a rock festival on the outskirts of Lincoln. Sheets of rain were sweeping up from the Fens but I didn’t care. I was in that state of festival bliss that even soaking wet clothes and a surfeit of greasy, indigestible burgers couldn’t diminish.

Then a big American rock band came on. The lead singer strode up to the microphone and hollered: “Hello London!”

London? The crowd went ape, indifferent to this crime against English geography, but I remember trying to figure out how far north Lincoln was from London. At least 150 miles, I reckoned, which in a vast country like the USA clearly made Lincoln a mere suburb of the capital. After all, the famous Woodstock festival took place 60 miles up the road from the actual town of Woodstock.

The event came to mind last week when I heard an academic suggest on BBC Radio 4 that Manchester, Leeds and York are no longer in the north but part of London’s sphere of influence.

“There are several ways you could define a northern region,” said Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, chair of town planning at Newcastle University. “But perhaps the most pertinent question is, where does London end?”

In the studio he drew a big purple squiggle on the map, subsequently tweeted, which showed an area he defined as “not London” – everything outside a line drawn from the Severn to north Manchester, across to the M1 above Sheffield, a loop round Leeds and York, then south along the A1 to Peterborough and eastwards to the Wash.

He claimed this map showed how London’s “sphere of influence” now extended over most of England, “determined by two-hour commuting patterns, which is becoming the norm”. But his removal of cities like Leeds and Manchester from the north caused such an uproar that the professor deactivated his Twitter account. Which is understandable given that the north-south divide – what the discussion was about – is such a highly-charged subject.

The gap is seen as representing the difference between the affluent south and economically deprived north, as well as social differences represented by cliches like northern males in flat caps and the Monty Python sketch Four Yorkshiremen. Anyone who tries to tamper with the gap does so at their peril, however, though I can see what the hapless Professor Tewdwr-Jones was trying to say. Manchester, Leeds and York exude an aura of prosperity at odds with the rest of the north, as do their affluent commuter belts. Professionals from London who have assimilated easily after relocation to these areas might have found it hard to settle in other northern cities.

Crucially the north-south gap is shown by life expectancy. People in the south live an average of three years longer than residents of England’s northern regions. There are also big differences to the detriment of northerners when it comes to wages and unemployment.

We once talked about “north of Watford”, but since the Thatcher 1980s the line seems to have moved to just below Sheffield. But drawing a line across England creates a distorted picture. The real division is not between north and south but between the haves and have-nots. That exists whether you live in Hampstead or Hull, and sometimes even in the same street.

Interact: Responses to Life expectancy is now measured in gap years, says Roger Ratcliffe – the north-south gap

  • Michael Ryan
    12 Jul 2018 15:10
    Britain’s declining life expectancy is because the effects of air pollution on mortality rates have been ignored. Professor Danny Dorling and others wrote the following on the first page of their 2008 report: “The reduction in infant mortality has been cited as the single greatest factor contributing to increased life expectancy over the past 100 years”, and “At national level in England and Wales, infant mortality rates fell rapidly from the early 1970s and
into the 1980.” (Health Statistics Quarterly 40 Winter 2008). The switch from toxic coal gas to cleaner North Sea Gas triggered the rapid fall in infant death rates and also the surge in life expectancy. The failure of public health experts to recognise how air pollution harms health has ruined lives and crippled the NHS, which has reached its 70th birthday without taking its head out of the sand on air pollution. I’ve written to my MP enclosing the first page of the following report with both sentences I’ve quoted above highlighted. Health Stat Q. 2008 Winter;(40):18-29. Geographical trends in infant mortality: England and Wales, 1970-2006. Norman P1, Gregory I, Dorling D, Baker A. Author information Abstract At national level in England and Wales, infant mortality rates fell rapidly from the early 1970s and into the 1980s. Subnational areas have also experienced a reduction in levels of infant mortality. While rates continued to fall to 2006, the rate of reduction has slowed. Although the Government Office Regions Yorkshire and The Humber, the North West and the West Midlands and the Office for National Statistics local authority types Cities and Services and London Cosmopolitan have experienced relatively large absolute reductions in infant mortality, their rates remained high compared with the national average. Within all regions and local authority types, a strong relationship was found between ward level deprivation and infant mortality rates. Nevertheless, levels of infant mortality declined over time even in the most deprived areas with a narrowing of absolute differences in rates between areas. Areas in which the level of deprivation eased have experienced greater than average reductions in levels of infant mortality.

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