Compass points

Obsession with north v south ignores our quadrant of England

Earlier this month, new data found that London and the south-east had the highest concentration of well-paid graduates in the country.

This crunching of graduate employment and Census 2011 stats with recognised UK commuting patterns proved what those of us who call the West Country and the south-west of England home have always known:

Geographical advantage is a big deal. Opportunities for young people are spread unequally across the country, and it’s not fair.

Ambitious graduate walking the gold-paved streets of London or the south-east? Jackpot.

Ambitious graduate marooned in south-western towns Ilfracombe, Camborne or Bridgwater? Good luck.

The stats, from the Office for Students (OfS), show that:

  • Areas in England with the highest concentration of well-paid graduates (those earning over £23,000) are London, Reading, Slough and Heathrow. 70 per cent of graduates earn over £23,000 or are in further study three years after graduation
  • The Midlands, and North and South-West England contain most of the areas with the lowest earnings – 52 per cent of graduates earn over £23,000 or are in high-level study. Coastal towns are facing particular challenges.

Which is bad enough.

But while the needs of the Midlands and North are loudly publicised – see the Northern Powerhouse and, to a lesser degree, the Midlands Engine – why do so few public figures talk as passionately about the west and south-west?

True, there’s the Western Gateway and Great South West – both well-meaning partnerships of public and private bodies seeking to boost the fortunes of the region.

But their progress is slow and their impact, as yet, small. And I can’t see that changing until the wider establishment feels exercised enough to talk about them at Prime Minister’s Questions, BBC’s Question Time or indeed anywhere beyond the local press.

Graduates shouldn’t have to move to London to take a shot at their dream jobs.

If our government’s rhetoric on ‘levelling-up’ is to be believed it needs to look a lot further west than Windsor Castle. There should be incentives – such as assistance with infrastructure costs, tax breaks, subsidies for employee training/wages – given to big, prestigious graduate-magnets who move their headquarters here: eg major law firms, tech companies, financial services, media companies, fashion houses, publishers, charities and government departments (respectful nod to the aforementioned OfS in Bristol).

Stereotypes are partly to blame: those outside the west and south-west often assume it’s full of rose-covered rectories and stately piles. Polo players, royalty, retired supermodels and farmers.

And sure, at a county level this corner of England is not exactly down there with Skegness in the suffering stakes. But it in no way resembles the Cotswold cliché. A glance at the government’s Indices of Deprivation reveals the true picture. Swathes of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and even Gloucestershire are among the most deprived 10% of areas nationally.

The graduates of the west and south-west are as smart, driven and worthy of prestige jobs as their peers in Hampstead, Hackney and High Wycombe. Why shouldn’t there be more dreams on their doorsteps?