Robots could “compound” UK’s north-south divide, warns think tank chief

Areas with a high proportion of jobs in retail and administration are the most likely to be affected by technological unemployment, according to an official report. 

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Workers in the Midlands and the north of England are at the highest risk of losing their jobs to robots, according to a report from the Centre for Cities.

The report predicts that by 2030 nine areas in these parts of the country could see more than a quarter of their jobs replaced by advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Roles in retail, administration and warehousing are the most likely to be affected.    

The rise of messenger bots to handle customer queries and complaints or self-service checkouts in supermarkets, the report said, are examples of where automation is already having an impact.

The Centre for Cities’ findings reignite the debate over the widening gulf between the north and south of the United Kingdom’s economies, as they suggest more affluent places in the south are in a better position to offer alternative avenues of employment or retrain staff.

The think tank’s chief executive, Andrew Carter, warned that more companies turning to automated services or production could “compound” the UK’s north-south divide. He said: “Automation and globalisation will bring huge opportunities but there is also a real risk that many people and places will lose out.”

Towns and cities north of Watford gap, such as Mansfield, Wakefield and Sunderland, have a significant proportion of their employment rooted in the sectors which could be changed by technology. Outside of the south of England, one in four jobs could be threatened by technological unemployment – higher than the 18 per cent average for locations nearer to London.

Carter added: “We need to reform the education system to give young people the skills to thrive in the future, and we also need greater investment in lifelong learning to help adults adapt to the changing labour market.”

Counter policies such as universal basic income or higher taxes for companies making heavy use of robots have been floated across the political spectrum to offset mass redundancies. The Prime Minister, however, has said that the government is committed to helping people “secure the jobs of tomorrow”, with plans already in place to create a new nationally rolled out retraining scheme to help workers develop new skills and embrace technology. 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.