Of course there are other reasons for my interest. I am a social marketer. For over 20 years I have been working on projects and programmes to narrow the inequalities gap and persuade people to lead a better lifestyle - drink less, move more... My specialism: health related behaviour change. I have looked at copious amounts of data on everything from smoking and obesity rates to school meals eligibility and coroner death data - in the pursuit of identifying gaps and insight to facilitate positive change. So when this research landed on my desk I was quick to take a look.
Something that stood out to me straightaway (and I found most alarming) is that the problem is stark among young people: There were 29% more deaths among 25-34 years olds in the north in 2015, than the south and if you happen to be aged between 35 and 44 years old (this is my age bracket) you are 49% more likely to die suddenly. Common causes of deaths for younger age groups include suicide, poisoning, car crashes and liver disease and over the age of 40, other causes become increasingly common - in particular heart disease in men and cancer in women. ALL of the deaths I have mentioned so far have something in common. They are preventable. But it appears that even if you are rich in the north you will still apparently live shorter lives than your southern peers. Even a move to leafy York or trendy Chester will not bring your life expectancy in line with those residing in Sussex or Surrey.
So what is it about the geography that puts northerners at greater risk than southerners?
The research looked at data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to compare the whole English population between 1965 and 2015. I took the liberty of looking at the ONS mortality data - focusing on deaths that could have been prevented (alcohol-related deaths, drug deaths, smoking, suicide, obesity related deaths) and was unsurprised to discover that with the exception of suicide, deaths related to alcohol, drug misuse, smoking and obesity were higher in the north than the south. When it comes to suicide the rate is high (in my view) in all areas but there is no more or less likely probability of suicide in the north or south. What seems to be missing from this research (and a bit of a flaw in my view) is the in-depth piece. Researchers didn't look at the causes of death and were therefore unable to give specific reasons for the stark divide in life outcomes. I would suggest that before we start looking at an entirely new public policy we need to really understand the 'why' question. This means moving from the numbers and walking in the shoes of people living in places north of the M4.
The professor who carried out the study said the solution and the way to narrow the gap is more jobs, infrastructure and economic investment. And he is probably not wrong. When I look at how to get people to stop smoking or do more exercise I focus on the wider determinants of health - such as where people live, how they live and the influencers and networks that surround them. It is hard to quit smoking or lose weight if you are lonely, have no job and suffering from poor mental health with no access to transport and decent leisure facilities. Its not that people are lazy. It's just not easy. I remember working on a project in an East Midlands town. We were trying to get more people from two communities to get more active and lead a healthier lifestyle. It didn't take me long to find out that most of the people that we were trying to influence had no access to a car and most of the places that would help facilitate an active life such as gyms, outdoor green spaces, the local swimming pool, walking routes were located far from their home. They couldn't even bus it because the costs were high, they ran infrequently and stopped at 6pm. It wasn't impossible to get to places - it just wasn't easy.
Did you know that more than half of the UK’s total spending on transport networks is invested in London. Analysis by the think tank IPPR North found that £1,943 is being spent per person in London on current or planned projects compared with just £427 in the north. They found that Yorkshire and the Humber would get just £190 per head, the north-east £220, and the north-west £680 for transport from 2016/17 onwards, averaging out at £427 per head for the region. This is quite frankly scandalous. There is a chronic underinvestment in northern infrastructure projects. And Infrastructure is what we need here.
This research shouldn't really come as a shock. Actually, I could say this was even predicted. Let me take you back to 1962 - roughly the same time this research dates back to. In 1962, as Britain pulled slowly out of recession, Harold Macmillan told an audience that he was determined to “prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south”. The price of failure, the Conservative prime minister said, would be that “our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.” Well here we are Mr Macmillan. And it's ugly. The north is poor and the south is rich and overcrowded. You only have to take a trip on Southern Rail from London to Brighton or attempt to buy a flat in London to experience this reality. So i'm afraid to tell you that your successors still haven't got to grips with this issue over 50 years later. A few after you have tried to create 'one nation' but failed. The north remains poorer than the south, with sharply lower employment rates and average incomes. And many of your political friends are still scratching their heads and wondering why most of the north voted Brexit.
Before us northerners (I have been adopted by my northern friends and the 'north' is my home) get our pitch forks out and charge on Westminster it is important to point out that for much of the past 20 years growth in the British economy has come from two sectors: government spending, primarily on health care and education, and the private service sector. But the north has benefited only from the first, and it is dwindling. Whereas government spending is spread fairly evenly across the country—nurses and teachers are needed roughly in proportion to the population—private-sector growth has been heavily concentrated, mostly in and around London.
The public sector pumping money into the north helps but without greater investment by the private sector in the north the gap will remain. The private sector has not yet come close to filling the gap left by the retreating state. We need jobs. We need better trains. We need better roads. But more than that we need hope. We need to know our decision makers and the money people care about people and places outside of the London bubble.
There is no doubt that this is a complex issue. And there is no one solution. This problem needs design. It needs an injection of northernness too. There is no doubt in my mind that there is enough talent outside of London to help take this issue on.
Looking at some things that have worked or helped over the last decade I think a retreat from the London bubble could impact positively overall - not just in solution design but in strategy. We need to persuade people to escape the London bubble or not run to it in the first place. One think tank suggests that a better plan to solve the north/ south divide, perhaps, is to persuade more professional types to move northward, bringing their jobs with them. It's what I did. I moved north and I set up my business, creating a dozen jobs but it wasn't easy. I have had to set up a satellite office in London to attract southern based businesses to work with us. Do businesses in the South think that only the best agencies are in London?
Many northern cities, including my own city of Lincoln have been smartened up with bright and forward thinking new universities, but the flow of graduates is still strongly southward. I struggle to recruit professional people into roles. I'm told by university lecturers that they have flocked to the south but they will be back like migrating birds when they want to settle down and buy cheap houses. I suppose I shall have to wait.
We really need to listen to Macmillan. Even if it is 50 years too late. As we move towards Brexit our focus is on the divorce of our United Kingdom with our friends and allies in Europe. But an even greater divide is growing within our Kingdom - and I am not talking about geographical boundaries. It's a divide of people. Those with opportunity and hope and those without. And the geographical line has been drawn.