The proliferation of “north-south divide” talk blaming London for hardship in other parts of the UK is embedded in Left populism and an indictment of droves of purported academics and our supposedly “progressive” media. The cry that “rich London” is responsible for the problems of Halifax and Oldham can be heard across the spectrum of the liberal intelligentsia, making an unfunny joke of that label’s latter half.
To a point, this is forgivable. Can non-Londoners be blamed for believing the capital is populated solely by oligarchs and hipsters, given so much uncritical promotion of the “social cleansing” narrative, which insists that gentrification has “pushed out” the city’s poor? Not really, given that plenty of Londoners, especially the type that rushed to join the Labour Party four years ago, chant such reductive mantras too.
But, guess what, reality doesn’t quite bear out the theory. A giant example of this is the high level of child poverty in much of the Greater London area. Last month, the End Child Poverty campaign produced a breakdown of child poverty rates in England by parliamentary constituency and by local authority area.
In each case, two separate lists were compiled – one with housing costs factored in, the other without. Those that excluded housing costs had only one part of London in their top twenties: the borough of Tower Hamlets and the Poplar & Limehouse constituency, which forms part of it. But when housing costs were put into the calculations – a huge part of most Londoners’ regular household expenditure – London boroughs and seats were everywhere.
Tower Hamlets was way clear at the top of the local authority child poverty chart, with a rate of 56.7 per cent compared with a UK average of 30 per cent. In second place came Newham on 51.8 per cent, followed by Hackney (48.1 per cent) and Islington (47.5 per cent). Blackburn & Darwen in fifth place was the first non-London local authority to figure, ahead of Westminster in sixth – yes, the name might be synonymous with grandeur and wealth, but that is only on side of its story. Camden, Brent, Barking & Dagenham, Lambeth and Enfield completed London boroughs’ ten-strong appearance in the English local authorities top 20.
Ten of the top 20 child poverty constituencies in England were London ones too, with the other Tower Hamlets seat, Bethnal Green & Bow, in second and East Ham, third. Islington South & Finsbury, West Ham, Hackney South & Shoreditch, Tottenham, Edmonton, Vauxhall and Hackney North & Stoke Newington completing the line up. Maybe London isn’t all “rich” after all.
It should go without saying that highlighting high child poverty rates in London is not to make light of children poverty outside the capital: it is every bit as unacceptable in parts of Birmingham, Manchester, small towns and rural areas, and poor London children tend to enjoy certain advantages compared with counterparts elsewhere, such as state schools of a high standard and the city’s array of low cost or free amenities. Neither is it done in order to score some kind of Londonist point.
Sadly, stressing such things has become a necessity in the context of a debate about spatial inequalities in England and the rest of the UK increasingly marked by ignorance, chauvinism and simplistic conceptualisations of fairness. Addressing imbalances between London and other regions and nations as well as, crucially, within them, requires far more sophisticated thinking and a willingness to dispense with slogans in favour of grappling with reality. It is not a question of London Versus The Rest. You might think that obvious. Depressingly, not everyone does.