Book Review (Coe and Jones 2010)
The Economic Geography of the UK
Neil M. Coe and Andrew Jones (Editors)
2010, London, SAGE Publications, ISBN 9781849200905, RRP £24,99 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Reijer P. Hendrikse, University of Amsterdam (17 March 2011)
The edited volume The Economic Geography of the UK (2010) is the product of a series of sessions held at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference of 2008. According to the editors, the book offers “uniformly stimulating, timely and important commentaries on different aspects of the UK space-economy” with the overall aim to make sense of “geographical stories of continuity and change” (pp. vii, 10). Divided in four parts, the book features eighteen concise chapters written by twenty-eight authors. These authors constitute an impressive list of leading geographers who define the subfield’s research agenda in the UK and abroad. Added up, the book seems set to become required reading for UK undergraduates in economic geography.
In part one titled Setting the Scene: Uneven Economic Geographies, editors Neil Coe and Andrew Jones identify six “interconnected and overlapping” processes that have shaped the UK space-economy in recent times: globalisation, financialisation, tertiarisation, flexibilisation, immigration and neoliberalisation. Although by no means exhaustive, the editors note that these six processes capture “the major dynamics at work” and will be discussed “in much more detail” throughout the book (pp. 5). Following the introduction, Danny Dorling evaluates the North-South divide typical of the English space-economy by mapping a detailed, persistent and arguably widening ‘South-east-North-west’ divide. In turn, Ron Martin argues that New Labour’s regional policies – designed to ‘mind the gap’ sketched by Dorling – have not reduced these uneven regional-growth patterns. One reason for this policy failure is a claim repeated throughout the book: That is, the ‘global’ City of London exerts a politico-economic force of great magnitude within the UK space-economy thereby continuously reinforcing its persistent unevenness.
In part two Landscapes of Power, Inequality and Finance, John Allen discusses two contrasting perspectives to analyse the power of that very City. Whether the power of high finance is of structural, networked or hybrid nature, Allen explains that the City has always been very capable to “reproduce its dominance over time” (pp. 56). Consequently, Shaun French, Karen Lai and Andrew Leyshon sketch out the broader geography of UK financial centres. In addition, Steve Musson details the role of the UK government as economic/financial actor followed by Andy Pike and John Tomaney who sketch the relation between state and economy and evaluate some of the uneven consequences of their interaction. As two further components crucial to the domestic financial sector, Chris Hamnett evaluates the ‘boom/bust’ dynamic of the UK housing market followed by Kendra Strauss and Gordon Clark who discuss the uneven setup and uncertain outlook of the UK pensions landscape.
In part three Landscapes of Production and Circulation, Ray Hudson reveals that both output and employment in UK manufacturing have deteriorated since the 1980s (pp. 149). Having said this, James Faulconbridge subsequently shows that this decline has been partly offset by “rapid growth in employment in services” (pp. 153). In turn, Brain Ilbery and Damian Maye discuss UK agricultural restructuring (and evolving food networks) moving towards a neo-productivist order whereby an emerging (re)emphasis on production is being fused with environmental care. Neil Wrigley offers an engaging account on retailing focusing on the food sector and the evolution of one of the UK’s most-celebrated multinationals (Tesco). In doing so, Wrigley details the intricate interactions between regulation, consumer expectations and corporate strategy shaping retail landscapes in the UK and beyond. Finally, Michael Bradshaw sketches the contours of the UK energy sector in light of energy security and climate change in which the future role of the state might well increase in the quest for a low-carbon economy.
In the final part titled Landscapes of Social Change, Kevin Ward details the broad changes that transformed the UK labour market from “cradle to grave” employment towards a flexible system that increasingly produces jobs of temporary rather than permanent nature (pp. 21). Amidst this growing pool of low-paid ‘temp jobs’, Jane Wills et al. note that migrants perform an important role. This trend is equally observable at the high end of “the occupational hierarchy” and particularly in the capital city (pp. 236). Alison Stenning adds to the analysis on foreign influxes by detailing some of the wider changes within the UK space-economy in light of Europe’s “post-socialist transformations” (pp. 239). Finally, editors Coe and Jones provide a summary of the book’s content in the form of a coda.
Without doubt, the book keeps its promise by providing a stimulating selection of commentaries that carefully sketch out the continuities and changes that underlie the contemporary state of the UK space-economy. Overall, the maps, graphs and tables provided are rich in detail and offer many valuable insights. Although the editors state that the timeframe of interest zooms in on the latter two decades, most chapters do actually adhere to a longer timeframe stretching back thirty years. In other words, the volume broadly focuses on the period stretching from Thatcher to Brown i.e. from crisis to crisis. In doing so, the book offers a timely contribution investigating the major processes having reconfigured the UK space-economy in recent times. As stated in the preface by Doreen Massey, the UK space-economy might yet again be at a “turning point” (pp. x). Having evolved from crisis to crisis, it is therefore a valuable exercise ‘to take stock’; to analyse how processes of continuity and change have come about and to speculate on what might be coming. In this respect, the book realises its aims. The fact that the book is comprised of “deliberately self-contained” (pp. 8), concise and entertaining chapters and – not totally unimportant – is relatively affordable makes the book an attractive undergraduate companion for economic geography students.
However, there are some critical remarks to be made. The back cover of the book describes the volume as a “systematic and comprehensive” account. Where I fully agree that the book offers a comprehensive account, I am not entirely sure about the systematic nature of the work. Specifically, the book provides a variegated engagement with the processes outlined in the introduction: Where tertiarisation, flexibilisation and immigration are discussed in detail (e.g. Faulconbridge; Ward; Wills et al.), processes of globalisation, financialisation and neoliberalisation are not treated with equal attention. Although ‘touched upon’ by some (e.g. French et al.; Pike and Tomaney), these processes do merit explicit engagement. Furthermore, the fact that all six identified processes are of global/transnational signature might have been elaborated upon in more detail – perhaps in light of the thoughtful deconstruction of the book’s title (pp. 5).
The editors note that other aspects of the UK space-economy “merit inclusion” (pp. 8). However, a full-spectrum engagement is plainly impossible given the book’s broad focus. Having said this, some issues raised in the book do require further discussion. For example, where the editors rightly note that “inadequate regulation in banking and financial services is shown to be important in understanding the development of the 2007-9 financial crisis” (pp. 255), none of the chapters offer engagement with this issue. Although the book has been produced during the crisis (and the analysis of an unfolding event is always tricky), this is unfortunate. Furthermore, notwithstanding Wrigley’s engaging chapter, a thorough focus on the dynamics of multinational enterprise – a crucial unit of analysis in explaining the six processes transforming economic geographies in the UK and beyond – is somewhat lacking in the book. Finally, the chapters could benefit from ‘speaking’ more to one another. That is to say, where some exhibit significant overlap (e.g. Martin; Pike and Tomaney) and others provide fruitful ground to make interesting connections (e.g. Hudson; Faulconbridge), most chapters remain (overtly) self-contained.
Nonetheless, the book represents a major achievement. A detailed account ‘taking stock’ of the contemporary state of the UK space-economy has been long overdue. As such, the book is highly topical. Without doubt, the volume is set to become required reading for UK undergraduates studying economic geography and is highly recommended to all seeking a thorough understanding into the multiscalar complexities underlying the persistent unevenness defining the contemporary UK space-economy. If this is what you are looking for, look no further.