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8 August 2017

Northern mortality statistics make grim but unsurprising reading

“The story has remained unchanged for at least two or three decades now.”

By Daniel Curtis

There are many appropriate ways to describe the news that northern young adults are up to 50 per cent more likely to die earlier than their southern counterparts.

These figures are, for example, dire. They are dismaying. They are frustrating. But what they are not, is surprising.

I was born in London, but I was raised in the north, and I have seen the differences between the two. Growing up in northern towns, friendly and safe though they are, London was – and remains – the UK’s hub of social mobility.

Even if not all young adults have designs on the capital, the south in itself still holds an allure. Where you end up in your twenties is often linked to the educational choices you make before that, and many of my friends and acquaintances who went to university did so in the south.

But that’s not to say that going to university is a given for northern young adults. Six years ago, the Sutton Trust found that southern students were more likely to get places at top universities. They also reported that the University of Oxford accepted more students from China than from the north of England. 

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While that’s improving thanks to outreach and access efforts across UK universities, that inequality is felt in schools, too. Educational standards are lower in the north than in the south, linked in part to the south’s greater wealth. According to a spokesperson for the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Education and Skills Board, 56 per cent of northern pupils attain five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths, compared with 61 per cent in London.

For those who decide higher education isn’t for them, there are many who study for BTECs, who get apprenticeships, or who decide to work straight after school – but these intentions don’t always translate into jobs. During the three months ending May 2017, the north east had the highest rate of unemployment in the UK at 6 per cent.

That, too, is unsurprising. The northern towns around which I grew up are still gutted. The industries that once gave them a social and economic hub have been stripped, without a suitable or sustainable replacement. There’s a reason why, in many northern communities, “Thatcher” is still a swear word.

Without these opportunities for progression and advancement, it is no wonder that many find themselves suffering from deadly “diseases of despair” such as drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease and suicide.

This shouldn’t tie in to the Victorian idea of a feckless poor, idling away their time with vice – an idea that hasn’t quite been expunged.

Instead, it is an interconnected social and economic system where premature death is the result of a north disconnected from a southern epicentre.

But we’ve been told this before.

Danny Dorling, the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, who specialises in inequality, points to a study he and his colleagues published almost two decades ago highlighting the north-south divide and its impact on the health of those in the north. 

‘What if Britain was more equal?’, co-authored with Richard Mitchell and Mary Shaw, suggested that “annually, some 7,500 deaths amongst people younger than 65 could be prevented if inequalities in wealth narrowed to their 1983 levels.”

“I guess the interesting thing is not the story,” Dorling says about the Times’ article, “but the fact that the story has remained unchanged for at least two or three decades now.

“Back in the early 1970s, mortality rates in Sheffield were below the national average! The north has not always been more sick or more poor.”

He laments the fact that his findings were not listened to at the time. “Many other people came to much the same conclusions as we did back then,” says Dorling. “Someone could take the 2011 census and replicate our work to check if it is still the case but as rates of poverty difference are much the same between north and south as back in 1991, I suspect people don’t look because they know it will not be a new story.”

While there have been signs of progress in redressing the balance, each feels like a false dawn. George Osborne’s northern powerhouse promised a much-needed catalyst for growth but, infamously, no such initiative has yet materialised. Meanwhile, the focus on HS2 neglects the urgent requirements for investment in housing – both new-builds and regeneration – and in business expansion. Investment in transport infrastructure alone won’t give northerners the life chances of their southern equals – just make it slightly easier for some to escape.

The ongoing neglect is almost surprising given how hotly contested it will be in future elections. If the recent trend of Labour’s northern heartlands switching from red to blue continues, then both parties have a lot to prove. Both must show that they care about the fate of the country, not just that of London, if they are to win a majority.

But there’s something bigger at stake. Dorling’s 2000 study concluded with the thinly-veiled warning that “these statistics illustrate the importance of achieving the Government’s stated aims and policies, expressed in the currency of potential lives saved per year”. Votes are less important than the people I grew up with, whose lives risk ending too soon.