Go on, be cynical about Sadiq Khan gallivanting up to Leeds to be seen with Tracy Brabin and three other Labour Mayors making the case for HS2 to be completed, Old Oak to Euston link and all. Dismiss it as just the Mayor of London’s part in a national Labour stunt for deepening Tory government discomfort over the soaring cost of the project, the dismay of employers over its expected next dismembering, and the further mockery it makes of “levelling up”. Call for all that’s left of the whole thing to be called off. You are entirely my guest. But don’t deny me the simple pleasure of seeing that fatuous, cheerleader trope industry the so-called “north-south divide” being closed for business for a day.
The entire concept is flawed on every axis. Firstly, the north and south of England – and all points to either side and in between – are not separated by some arbitrary equivalent of the Belfast peace wall, keeping warring regions apart, but profoundly interconnected, economically, culturally, historically.
Secondly, it is a pernicious, populist untruth that all southerners, and Londoners in particular, live pampered lives of leisured luxury off the toil of honest northern folk – an untruth that helped fuel the fires of grievance that led to Brexit and a fat majority for Boris Johnson.
Thirdly, there are deep inequalities within regions as well as between them.
Fourthly, it feeds the disastrous delusion that if only governments would make “rich London” poorer, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and their surroundings would be awash with milk and honey.
Much discussion about how best to lessen the broad regional economic inequalities that do, of course, exist in Britain – and have done to national detriment for centuries – tends to politely avoid speaking two fundamental truths: one, that almost all of the rest of the country depends heavily on London’s ability to make money and pay taxes, whether the rest of the country likes it or not; two, for that very reason, the economies of other cities cannot be strengthened without London’s helping to pay for it.
It’s time to stop pretending and instead deal with those truths, because otherwise nothing can change. If HS2 is to join up Birmingham and Manchester, the bulk of the public money required for doing the job is going to be exported from the capital, not rustled up by those two other cities. London, remember, has long been the only region to generate a big “fiscal surplus” which is then redistributed elsewhere (the south and the east are the only other parts of England that produce more in tax than is spent on them, but the differences are far less than with London.) The same goes for Northern Powerhouse Rail, the long, long awaited – and undoubtedly deserved – rail connection between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds.
It’s also time for northern politicians and others to stop peddling the mathematically dubious claim that London repeatedly receives more than its “fair” share of transport infrastructure investment, an assertion based on spending per head of population that ignores the heavier use of public transport in the capital, the higher costs of building and maintaining it here, and the vast numbers of people who don’t live in Greater London – from daily commuters to overseas visitors – who make use of our buses and trains. It also handily forgets, as it complains about the Liz line, that Londoners often travel underground in carriages made in 1973.
It may be extremely galling that a Treasury pound invested in London yields a two pound return faster than one spent in Dudley or Darlington, but it is still extremely true – and it remains so no matter how often someone says “it’s not fair”. It is also extremely true that a portion of that two pounds gets spent in Dudley, Darlington, Manchester and Leeds rather than on helping the hard-up of Newham or Enfield.
Other cities need a strong London, and the country needs other cities to be stronger. So let’s dump the destructive wedge ploy that is the “north-south divide” and instead have a better, more productive debate. That debate should be about how best to help all cities and their regions change and grow well, about giving all of them – London included – more control over their own destinies, and about those in the midlands and north providing adventurous young people in their areas with more of the pleasures and opportunities London provides and which draw so many of them to the capital with little corresponding traffic in the opposite directions.
London-bashing is a cheap distraction from that serious task, which city Mayors should work together to get done.
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