England has long had a north-south divide. Now it appears to be developing an east-west gap as well.
Across the Midlands and the North, the growth of the west has been twice as fast as that of the east since the 2008 financial crisis.
Analysis of the latest regional data published by the Office for National Statistics shows that both sides of the country grew at a similar speed in the decade before the crisis.
But between 2009 and 2016, economic output per head in real terms rose by 9.2 per cent combined in the West Midlands and the North West but only by 4.6 per cent in the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East. As a result, the £1,000 gap in output per head between the east and west at the end of the 1990s reached £2,000 in 2016.
The acceleration of the west compared with the east appears to be driven not by greater levels of employment — the number of people in work has grown on both sides by 8 per cent from 2009 to 2017 — but because employees in the west are working longer hours and their productivity grew more quickly.
The total number of hours worked in the west was 10 per cent higher in 2016 than in 2009, compared with growth of just 7 per cent in the east. Output per hour was also 10 per cent higher in the west in 2016 than in 2009, while output per hour grew by just 7 per cent in the east over the same period.
Jim O’Neill, the former Treasury minister and Goldman Sachs economist, said the North West had been a standout region of the UK for some time.
He pointed to recent surveys of purchasing managers (PMI), which tracks business orders and is a benchmark of confidence. Anything above 50 indicates growth, and in December 2017 the North West figure was 60.7, a 40-month high, compared with 54.9 for the UK as a whole.
“The North West is increasingly the strongest place in Britain,” said Lord O’Neill, adding that the property market in the region is still buoyant but is now falling in London.
But he added that there are bright spots such as Leicester and Leeds in the east too. “One should be careful of generalising,” he said.
On a range of other metrics, the divide appears likely to grow further.
Using figures for spending on infrastructure projects that are already in the pipeline, IPPR North, a think-tank, calculates that the North West and West Midlands will benefit from £2,700 per head of public and joint public/private spending on transport infrastructure in the coming years, most of which will be spent by 2021. In contrast, £950 per person is planned to be spent in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the East Midlands.
The government has two flagship programmes — the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine — to try to improve economic performance beyond London and the South. But many of the transport and cultural projects involved have centred on Manchester and Birmingham .
Manchester airport alone carries 28m passengers annually, more than all those in the east combined.
HS2, the high-speed rail link from London to Crewe via Birmingham that is due to be built by 2027, is expected to boost the economy of the west further.
The second leg through the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds will take another six years, if parliament approves the route.
There is also a slight skills gap, with 33 per cent of working adults highly skilled in the west, but 31 per cent in the east.
Observers noted that western regions have taken advantage of government interest in devolving power to grab fresh money, power and attention from Whitehall, while political infighting has prevented eastern areas from striking similar deals.
The West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, covering more than 7m people, chose elected mayors in May, gaining access to £3bn of government funding over 30 years. By contrast, only Tees Valley and North of Tyne have opted for mayors in the east, while Sheffield City Region’s 2015 deal has fallen apart as councils across Yorkshire press for a single county-wide agreement with government.
Rivalry between Nottingham and Derby prevented any deal in the East Midlands.
Richard Flint, chief executive of Leeds-based online gaming company Skybet, said the lack of a mayor was holding back investment in Yorkshire.
Mr Flint, who is chairman of the CBI employers’ group for Yorkshire and the Humber, added: “These figures show just how important it is for government to prioritise investment into east-west transport. Reducing travel times between the northern cities is key to boosting growth across the whole of the region and vital if Yorkshire is going to fulfil its economic potential.”
Paul Swinney, head of policy and research at Centre for Cities think-tank, said there would be a “growing divide” between places that had metro mayors and those that did not.
“The mayors are already having a big impact in promoting the interests of places such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and the government has clearly signalled that it will prioritise these city regions when it comes to investment and policy decisions.”
Mr Swinney said that Manchester and Birmingham’s greater size had also enabled them to attract better jobs. “They have turned a corner with high skilled jobs growth in their city centres. But they still dealing with a big legacy from the industrial decline of their suburban areas.”
They are also home to strong professional services clusters and funds that invest in the growing tech sector. Cheshire, which links the two regions, has the second highest productivity level of any sub-region outside London.
Productivity in the North East grew quickly between 2009 and 2012 but in recent years the region has had to cope with a slump in iron and steelmaking, which culminated in the 2015 closure of the Redcar complex and the loss of 3,000 jobs. A slide in the oil price has also affected the oil services sector, though offshore wind has been a growing market.
The idea of an east/west gap was played down by Andrew Hodgson, the chairman of the North East local enterprise partnership (LEP), which brings local authorities and businesses together to determine economic priorities.
“I think we’ve made great progress as a Lep region over the last couple of years in terms of jobs created,” he said.
Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry said the government was committed to inclusive growth. “The new Northern Powerhouse benefits the whole of the North — not just its core cities. This government is working hard across the region with businesses, local partners, and civic leaders of all political colours to build a strong, prosperous northern economy that takes its place proudly on the world stage.”
Get alerts on UK economic growth when a new story is published