Magazine article Public Finance

One Country, Two Nations

Magazine article Public Finance

One Country, Two Nations

Article excerpt

In the corner of England where I live, the fragile economy rests on a knife-edge. I've lost count of the number of businesses going to the wall over the past few months but they include the confectionery company, employing mainly women, many of whose parents and husbands doubtless lost their jobs when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s; the big, brand-name furniture factory; and the long-established carpet works. Such job losses, several hundred here and there, rarely make headlines. But totted up, they amount to the equivalent of, say, the collapse of MG Rover last year.

New Labour might be boasting the highest employment levels in the European Union, but in the English Northeast and other traditional manufacturing areas there is precious little sign of an upturn - retailing and entertainment apart. While official unemployment is relatively low, the number of people regarded as 'inactive' is high because they have been diverted on to invalidity benefit as industries collapse.

In the Northeast, they probably represent around 6% of the working population - more than 90,000 according to estimates by Sheffield Hallam University based on Department for Work and Pensions figures. The Southeast, by contrast, has only 45,000 (0.9%).

It gets worse. Easington, an old pit community on the County Durham coast, tops the chart with around 8,000 people, over 14%, hidden on IB. Below it a 'top 20' of IB 'hot spots', prepared by the university, is a roll call of old industrial England: Knowsley on Merseyside; Liverpool; the once-thriving Cumbrian shipbuilding town of Barrow; Barnsley; Middlesbrough; Stoke; Hartle pool and so on.

Truly, England embraces two nations: the relatively prosperous greater Southeast, with its housing and labour shortages, creaking infrastructure and emerging growth areas - and the rest of the country, prospering in parts, struggling elsewhere.

Of course, we can over-simplify this national divide by failing to recognise deep pockets of poverty in London boroughs and in parts of the south. But take two districts, 200 miles apart, at the extremes of the health divide. Easington (population 94,000) - on the doorstep of Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency probably has around 48% of its workforce employed; Wokingham, Berkshire (population 150,000) has 70%. In Easington, more than 30% of people have said they're suffering from a long-term illness, compared with 11% in Wokingham. Life chances in too many parts of England are poor. …

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