Dave Hill: Blaming London will not make the UK more equal or fair

Dave Hill: Blaming London will not make the UK more equal or fair

Blaming London for the problems of other parts of the UK is very far from new, with a history stretching back to well before even William Cobbett’s famous denigration of it as “the great wen“. There has, though, been an escalation of anti-London attitudes in recent years, much of it ignorant and some of it disturbing. A collection of often interwoven narratives, endlessly reproduced by politicians, campaigners and across the media, depict the UK capital as variously a “playground for the rich”, an excluder of the poor, an urban jungle of “no go zones” within a wider “warzone“, a place so full of immigrants that it’s no longer British, the home of an arrogant “metropolitan elite” and as a parasite that drains the life out of the rest of the country and hogs funding from the public purse.

Anti-London sentiments can presently be found on many different parts of the political spectrum, including the ostensibly progressive Left. This week, the Guardian is running a series of articles under the antagonistic heading “London Versus“, which claims to illustrate how “the rest of England has been left behind” as a consequence of London’s “domination”. An introductory piece acknowledges the under reported fact that London’s massive tax export “subsidises most of the rest of the country” and makes a passing reference to life in the capital being “a struggle for many”. But the guiding thesis is that London and its citizens are getting special treatment while everywhere and everyone else has to make do with second best.

Such depictions of contemporary London are, of course, reductive and misleading. The Guardian’s examination of what it calls “the great divide” began, unsurprisingly, with public transport, focussing on the high price of many bus fares outside the capital compared with London’s flat rate of £1.50 per journey. It does report the vital fact that this contrast reflects the exemption of London’s bus service from full de-regulation under Margaret Thatcher, enabling routes and fares to continue to be decided by public bodies rather than the market. But while it is fine to argue that other cities and regions have ended up with a raw deal, can London’s different dispensation really be said to demonstrate preferential treatment rather than a (perhaps reluctant) recognition that the particular circumstances of the capital demanded a different privatisation approach?

Transport investment in general is a recurring bone of contention, as seen by some reactions to the government’s recent bail out of Crossrail. Resentment of the scale and cost of the project have hardly been assuaged by national government’s endless prevarications over lower profile improvements to rail services in North and the Midlands. But let’s recall that Crossrail has been in development in one shape or form since the 1970s – getting the project going took decades of persuasion. It should also be kept in mind that building anything in London costs more than elsewhere and that there are different ways of comparing levels of spending on transport in different cities or regions. For example, Transport for London thinks it much fairer to calculate what the capital receives in terms of the numbers of users of public transport services or journeys made on them than by head of population. Measured that way, London receives far less than the national average.

The Guardian has also produced a string of charts showing differences in various prosperity and quality of life indicators between London’s boroughs and “England without London”. These emphasise that Londoners, on average, have higher take home pay, own more valuable homes and suffer less from obesity and depression. But there are none yet showing that Londoners’ housing costs as a whole are higher than those elsewhere or that Londoners, on average, have less disposable income (in large part because of those costs), or that London’s child poverty rates are exceptionally high, or that London’s economic growth generates work in towns and cities all over the UK. Any stark opposition drawn between a rich, spoiled London and a poor, deprived everywhere else is simply false.

Rather than feeding and legitimising the view that London is, in some monolithic sense, the pampered beneficiary of grievous regional injustices, we should be encouraging a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the capital and elsewhere and seeking to improve it. Jack Brown’s superb recent report for Centre for London on the issue set out clearly and fairly both the many misconceptions and the genuine problems, and charted a course for addressing them. Sadiq Khan has recognised the potential rewards of greater co-operation between cities and regions, as has the business organisation London First. We are more interdependent than we might think and have many common interests to pursue, not least the case for devolution (which the Guardian says it will be making later in the series).

There’s been a recent revival of the populist view that if national government put fewer resources into London and more into the regions, the “north-south divide” would start to disappear, and with it a whole range of other inequalities. If only the solution were that simple. The trouble is there is a very real danger that simply punishing London for being too big and strong would, in the end, be more harmful than helpful to Barnsley, Bristol or Bromsgrove. No programme for reviving and strengthening the towns and cities of the North, the Midlands and elsewhere can afford to ignore that conundrum. This simplistic strand of thinking is prominent on the Corbyn Left, among its politicians and sympathetic media alike. Its anti-London stance gives it a second patch of common ground with Farageism, alongside and related to a desire for Brexit. Neither tendency will help heal a disunited UK and both should be opposed, not encouraged.

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Categories: Comment

5 Comments

  1. Mike Lee says:

    The “London versus” series seems to be instigated by Helen Pidd, the Guardian’s North of England editor – she seems to be an activist for Manchester in the sense that she regularly tries to create the perception that central government is lavishing London with a disportionate amount government spending and that “the north” (mostly Manchester) should receive an increase in govenrment spending. This of course is untrue. The latest regional public spending figures from the ONS show that the three northern regions had a £41.1billion deficit – they received £41.1 billion more in spending from the government than they paid in taxes to the government:

    https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicsectorfinance/articles/countryandregionalpublicsectorfinances/2016to2017

    Helen’s region, the North West had the highest deficit of any region of £19.4 billion. That is massive overspending – funded by taxpayers in London and the wider southeast – even though these regions have their own problems – there would be valid grounds for resentment from these regions at the amount of our taxes that are transferred to the north (and elsewhere).

    The per head spending tactic has been duplicitously used by IPPR North for many years in regards to transport spending in London because it involves adding up all money spent on transport in London – which includes decentralised revenue streams like tube fares and private investment which as you stated ignores demand for transport and people who use London’s transport network but commute in from the wider southeast. The parliamentary Scrutiny Unit looked at the IPPR North claim of regional disparity in transport spending back in 2012:

    https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/transport/Scrutiny-Unit-Note-regional-transport-spending.pdf

    Northern activists are essentially trying to create the (false) public perception that central government is lavishing London with grants and subsidies in order to pressurise the government into increase subsidies and grants for northern regions – who already receive massive subsidies from central government. London needs to make alliances with the South East and East as these regions have common cause with London in that they are unfairly targeted as having vast sums of public money spent on them when in reality they don’t.

    1. S Jones says:

      Love reading nonsense like your comment – great fun!

      London, holding the levers of political and media power, has deliberately wrecked the economy of the North of England for its own advantage. Is it any wonder that the victimised region in this process has a fiscal deficit, while the beneficiary has a surplus. What you are describing is the consequence of London rule. Northern calls for fairness will not be silenced by manipulated figures like those you cite.

      1. Dave Hill says:

        I’m afraid I’m with Mike on this one. Let’s not mischaracterise this issue as a zero-sum game.

  2. Andrew says:

    In 2017, the EU received a net payment of £8.9B from the UK government. That is less than the net payment paid from the government to the North West (13.8B), Wales (11.8B), W.Midlands (10.4B), Yorkshire&Humber (9.4B), Scotland (9.4B), NI (9.3B), and the North East (8.9B) and the only net contributors were London, the South east (because of London) and the East (also because of London). (ONS – https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8027)
    Having said that, the numbers are irrelevant since a currency union can only be viable if wealth is cycled from regions of high to low growth and discussing how much different regions does nothing but promote internal conflict when we should be asking how much does each region need.

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