Greggs/Boris Johnson: true north

Boris Johnson plans to “level up” northern England, where his Conservative party made big electoral gains last month. Step one for the UK prime minister is to determine exactly where the north begins.

This is the subject of debate. Some say Watford Gap motorway service station marks the spot. Others say that the north is not a place, but a state of mind. Lex favours a corporate measure hit on by The Tab, a student news site: the concentration of Greggs outlets.

Greggs is a UK food phenomenon. It dispenses freshly-baked pies, pasties and sausage rolls as fast food. Its 2,000 UK shops cluster densely in former manufacturing towns and cities. 

Bar chart showing Greggs vs Pret stores (Lex)

This makes it easy for Mr Johnson to know when he is in the north. On street corners where in London he would see a Pret a Manger, a breed of sandwich shop, he will see a Greggs instead.

The home town of “Workington Man”, a supposedly pivotal voter, has three Greggs outlets, a higher per-capita concentration even than in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the chain has its headquarters. This boasts more than 12 per 100,000 population. The north-eastern city has just 0.7 Pret stores per 100,000 people. Glasgow follows closely behind, but this is a stronghold of the Scottish National party.

Greater London has 189 Greggs outlets, or 2.1 per 100,000 people. It has 2.9 Prets for the same population.

Some northerners will resist a definition that might appear to characterise them as addicted to cheap meat pies. A riposte comes in the form of a comment attributed to JB Priestley: “What Manchester thinks today, the rest of England thinks tomorrow.” Greggs’ vegan sausage roll is at the forefront of a food revolution in the UK. Its southern footprint expanded long before the Tory party’s northern presence did.

However, Greggs stores are still found most often in lower-income neighbourhoods. Northerners are 20 per cent more likely to die early than southerners, according to a study by the University of Manchester. Poor diets are one reason. Unemployment and dead-end jobs are others. For Mr Johnson, defining the north will be easier than stimulating growth in places where it is far from baked in.

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