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Bankrupt Britain

An Atlas of Social Change


Daniel Dorling & Bethan Thomas


Bristol: The Policy Press, 2011

Paperback. 170pp. ISBN 978 1 84742 747 2. £29.99


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





Danny Dorling (University of Sheffield) is a prolific human geographer who has published no fewer than ten books with The Policy Press since 1999. His forte is the cartographic depiction of large data sets of socio-economic information. His argument is that Britain is spatially and socially unequal, and that political measures should be implemented to promote social justice. He is a frequent commentator on social and economic issues in the press, and on radio and television. His position is set out at the start of Bankrupt Britain:


We need to know who is living where in Britain and how people’s lives are changing, for better or worse. That is, unless you believe that there is no need to plan, perhaps because you believe that the free market will result in the optimum outcome and that anyone who suffers under it deserves to suffer for the greater good [vii].


Bankruptcy is being unable to discharge your debts, being unable to pay those to whom you owe money. It also has a further, figurative meaning of lacking in some quality, such as moral bankruptcy. The British state is far from bankrupt in the traditional financial definition of bankruptcy. It is still well able to pay its creditors. The British state is currently bankrupt in how it treats those who are more vulnerable, especially the poor, the young and the sick [ix].


Danny Dorling and his colleague Bethan Thomas begin by explaining the basic convention behind the construction of their maps. These are, in fact, “cartograms, where the size of each area is represented as proportional to its population” [xiii]. They are very different from anything that I have seen before, being distorted in such a way as to convey total population numbers, but also maintaining as far as possible the original shapes of administrative (and other) units, and accurately depicting an area’s neighbours. Readers will find the maps intriguing but also, I suspect, very hard to decipher since it is necessary to dispel any conventional expectation of the shape of a map of Britain. Thus, large, densely-populated conurbations (Greater London, Birmingham, Manchester, etc.) occupy large parts of each cartogram, whereas thinly-populated Wales, Scotland, East Anglia and south-west England have been shrunk down to reflect their much small population totals.


Dorling and Thomas used the latest available data at the time of composition, however figures from the 2011 Census were, of course, not available. They chose to compare information on changes between consecutive years (e.g. 2009 compared with 2008), which strikes me as rather risky since short-term fluctuations can be considerable and less informative than trends over, say, a ten-year or five-year period. They also used data of—what I suspect is—varying reliability. Information on mean house prices or voting behaviour is probably a fair reflection of reality, but I am not quite so convinced by figures on “children’s emotional health change (% point) 2009 compared with 2008”, or the distribution of “children being bullied (%)” for 2010.


The atlas, comprising cartograms and text, is structured in six sections: financially bankrupt, residentially bankrupt, politically bankrupt, morally bankrupt, emotionally bankrupt, and environmentally bankrupt, with an array of multi-colour maps for each theme. The numerous displays reveal the remarkable spatial diversity of life in Britain, that is England and Wales plus Scotland (but not Northern Ireland, which is excluded for statistical reasons). Greater London is richer than any other part of Britain, and outer western London is more affluent than any other part of the conurbation. However, Greater London (especially its northern and eastern middle suburbs) is a focus of child poverty, along with much of Scotland. Average house prices are substantially higher in outer western London than in any other part of Britain, as are mean rents for local authority housing. Labour voters are concentrated in Britain’s conurbations, and in northern and eastern London rather than in western parts of the capital. Children subject to formal child protection procedures tend to be concentrated in major urban areas; malicious telephone calls to the fire service are more common in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain; inheritance tax (accruing after death) is more commonly paid in richer parts of south-eastern England than in many poorer parts of Britain. Anti-depressants are prescribed by doctors much more frequently in South Wales (and in lowland Scotland) than in most of Britain, including Greater London where environmental stress is high, as are mean incomes. Environmental pollution is unsurprisingly concentrated in urban and industrial areas, but pollution due to emissions from road vehicles is less pronounced around London than in the West Midlands. Electrical energy is most intense in northern Scotland, with long, cold, dark winters and no piped gas supplies to provide an energy source.


All this spatial information is fascinating and informative, but I am less intrigued by the year-on-year comparisons. These may be summarised as a worsening of conditions for people living in poor, deprived areas and a relative enhancement—or less pronounced reduction—in standards of living for people in richer areas. Readers must be aware that average figures for administrative areas (or other spatial units, such as health districts) are expressed as the mean of local social conditions, which can be very diverse within a single spatial unit. It may be argued that whilst a detailed map, such as the cartograms in this atlas, is better than a generalised one, it is the people within the areas who really matter rather than the areas themselves. The temptation to compare distribution maps of two different socio-economic phenomena in order to imply that there is an association—or even a causal relationship—between those variables needs to be thought through with extreme care. The quick-fix, ‘ecological fallacy’ of apparent causative relationships read from a selection of maps needs rigorous scrutiny and critical debate. Geography matters, space matters, but so too does society; lived experience shows that the relationship between society and space is far from straightforward.


I examined this atlas before the ‘hot summer’ events of early August 2011. From my observation of the media coverage of looting in London, there are no simple spatial correlations to provide explanations, or to suggest remedies. Some looters lived in areas with low average incomes, but not all of them; some looters had left school with no qualifications, whereas others were university graduates; some looters had previous criminal records, but others were unknown to the police. Some looters were young and impulsive, whereas others were middle aged and had cars around the corner to take away their spoils. Some shopping areas escaped from attack, whereas those with department stores, shops selling electronic gadgetry and fashionable clothes for young people were targeted; bookshops in otherwise looted shopping streets remained untouched, their merchandise apparently of no interest to the looters.


In short, the spatiality of socio-economic inequality is fundamental and reveals differing configurations, or milieux, in which there are varying degrees of hope for the future. The heart of the matter surely lies within society itself, its politics and policies. Used with care and appropriate criticism, Bankrupt Britain will inform opinion and stimulate debate; its authors are to be congratulated. In am sure that they would be the first to stress that apparent spatial correlations may be not only erroneous but also dangerous if rapid, ill thought-through explanations are advanced and policies (and punishments) proposed. As Dorling and Thomas use their evidence to argue for policies to promote greater social justice, I am sure that they carry many readers with them. Yet, even if they do not achieve that goal, they will surely dispel three myths: that geography is easy, that it is boring, and that it is irrelevant..




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