However much one knows (or thinks one knows) the facts, seeing them represented visually can have a big impact. That’s how I felt when I saw this map of the UK “distorted by population” from @Amazing_Maps. In fact “distorted” isn’t the correct phrase – “differently represented” perhaps. The huge and growing imbalance between London and the South East and the rest of the country is immediately apparent, even in purely demographic terms. When one goes on to look at economic variables, the effect is even more pronounced. This map of full-time earnings is from the ONS, the UK’s official Office of National Statistics.
The right-hand cartogram shows clearly not just the weighting of jobs towards the lower-right part of the UK, but also the much higher average earnings there. And it’s not just a map: thanks to the skills of the ONS Data Visualisation team, you can move your curor around the cartogram and see detailed information for each local authority area. Outside London, there are only a few areas of higher earnings – Edinburgh, Aberdeen (oil), Copeland in Cumbria (nuclear industry) and Derby – if anyone can shed light on the latter result I would be grateful.
Can – and should – these imbalances be reversed? Sixty years of various kinds of regional policy have had little impact on the pattern. While some traditional economists might argue that higher costs in London and the South-East will eventually lead to investment moving to areas with lower land and labour costs, this seems unlikely. Any such effect will be outweighed by the agglomeration and network impacts of the dense concentration of higher-level activities and higher-paid jobs in the London super-region (or Greater South East). In these circumstances it is difficult to see what impact regional policies can have: making investment in the London region more difficult will most likely lead to the loss of investment from the UK, not its displacement elsewhere, given the open-ness of the UK economy, while improved connectivity between London and the cities in the Midlands and North might improve the economic attractiveness of other cities – or might lead to further concentration in London. Improving educational attainment and skills levels in the lagging regions would certainly help the UK as a whole – but if higher-skilled workers simply migrate to where the existing jobs are, there will be little impact on regional imbalance.
But if maps like these were better known and more often looked at, the policy debate would be improved