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Comment: Maybe it’s time to extend an invitation to the South – level up

The red, white, and blue décor worked hard to evoke a sense of authentic Britishness. As deep-fried soft power goes, the battered fish is one of the most powerful vessels to ever sizzle.

But all was not well in this London chippy. Glum faces paid £15 – £15, that’s not a typo – for a barely-battered fish and a small cup of chips. Unsalted. Sans vinegar.

And it got worse – mayonnaise. No gravy.

At a time when Boris Johnson is pushing the “level up” mantra, the acute disparities between the North and South had never been starker.

Socioeconomic disparities between the two have been measured and analysed time and again. Economic growth rates alone tell a tale—between 1998 and 2016, the North East, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber experienced a 30 per cent growth, while London saw a growth of 71 per cent in the same period.

The Office of National Statistics found that in 2018, London’s gross disposable household income was £29,362, compared to £16,995 in the North East.

If these numbers can be dismissed because they compare apples and oranges – rural Northern areas to urban London – the ONS’ index of Regional Gross Added Value (GVA) is not so easy to ignore.

This study found that productivity per worker in Reading was 60 per cent higher than in Doncaster; the average weekly workplace wage in Cambridge is 40 per cent higher than that of Burnley; Oxford’s employment rate is 20 per cent higher than the rate in Blackburn.

Life expectancy is also significantly higher in some Southern regions. According to the ONS, between 2016 and 2018, Richmond-upon-Thames had the highest male healthy life expectancy in the country, at 71.9 years.

The same stood at 53.3 years in Blackpool – that is 18.6 years shorter.

 Tim Doran, a policy professor at the University of York, found that people had a 20 per cent higher risk of dying under the age of 75 in the North.

And it’s a similar story wherever you look, be that healthcare, Ofsted, or transportation.

The Institute for Public Policy Research found that, between 2009 and 2019, London received around £739 per capita in transport spending – Northern regions received £305 per capita in the same period.

It shows.

So certainly, there is room for the North to level up.

But in other, less quantifiable, criteria – how could the ONS measure the pure joy of burning the roof of your mouth with steaming gravy dripping from a fat chip doused in salt and vinegar – you have to wonder, maybe the South should be doing some levelling up of its own.

Some might say the arts are a subjective matter, but they are objectively superior in the North. Greater Manchester alone has produced bands like The Verve, The Hollies, The Smiths, New Order, the Stone Roses, and Oasis. Madchester was not named after Cornwall.

Sheffield generated powerhouses like Def Leppard, Pulp and Arctic Monkeys.

Liverpool – this one comes in an obvious mop-top hairstyle. Even little old North Shields got in on the action recently with Sam Fender’s meteoric rise.

And it would be easy to point out that only five of the 23 winners of the English top-flight were Southern since its inception in 1888, but there’s more. Years ago, in The Guardian, Simon Hattenstone pointed out that without the North, the country – nay, the world – would have been deprived of whippet racing, pigeon fancying, cheese skittle throwing, and Cumberland wrestling.

He singled out ferret legging as a particular point of Northern pride – a sport where two ferrets are placed inside brave athletes’ trousers, which are tied at the ankles to prevent escape, as a test of courage, will, and general worthiness.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to say the South should level up to the North because the latter have more ferrets down their trousers.  

But Rightmove’s 2019 Happy at Home index, which researches the happiest places to live in Britain, revealed that half of the top ten list was located in Northern England, including first-place Northumberland town Hexham, Harrogate, Skipton, Altrincham, and Southport.

The index, which includes friendliness and community spirit and whether people feel like they can be themselves, ranked Hexham as number one again in 2021.

The ONS, in 2019, also found that Lancashire’s Ribble Valley ranked the highest based on their average rating of happiness People in Surrey Heath, by contrast, were miserable.

It’s not just happiness. In 2021, the northeast ranked the highest by share of population who gave to charity (69 per cent). The northwest, northeast, and Yorkshire and Humber took nearly half of the 44,825 asylum seekers in the UK. Excluding London, the south took 6.5 percent.

Consensus seems to be – Northerners are friendlier.

Maybe it’s the music or the sports. Maybe it’s the Yorkshire pudding, the pies, the real pints at good prices, the Yorkshire Tea or the abundance of Greggs sausage rolls. It might not hurt to be close to scenery like the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District. Maybe it’s because Northerners can afford to buy flats and houses.

Maybe it’s the chippy tea, with gravy, mushy peas, and curry sauce and very much without a tangy lemon and garlic aioli.

Maybe it’s time to extend an invitation to the South – level up.

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