It’s the card they can’t stop playing. Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, wrote persuasively the other day about the national government’s maddening habit of taking big decisions about measures to address Covid-19 in his territory without asking him about them first. “We’ve been finding out what will happen in our areas by reading newspaper headlines instead of via formal channels,” he complained, and he warned that pandemic history shows that “central government ignores regional voices at its peril.”
So far, so good. But then, this: “A north-south divide is emerging in this latest phase of the pandemic. As it stands, nowhere in England south of Birmingham is under any sort of additional restrictions, while most of the north is under local measures.” And then: “This is something Andy Burnham [Mayor of Greater Manchester] and I have repeatedly raised. We have called for a regional voice on Cobra – like London has – and been ignored.”
Behold, the familiar refrain: not only is a national government treating us in the north of England badly, it’s treating “London” better by comparison; not only is it ignoring us, it’s making us suffer more than England south of Birmingham.
Why did Rotheram make a “north-south divide” comparison? What useful purpose did that framing serve?
It’s easy to see why Liverpool was all alone in the Very High alert category in the government’s latest reorganisation of its Covid restriction deckchairs – it was because Liverpool alone met the criteria. As for Rotheram’s accusation of “political game playing”, by pitching his grievance as a northern one, he is at least as guilty as the PM.
Is there an exclusively northern regional case here? Let’s look at how Boris Johnson, his special adviser cronies and his supine cabinet have been treating another directly-elected Mayor of another English city region – Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.
It is true that, unlike Rotheram and Burnham, Mayor Khan has been given a seat at the Cobra (or COBR) table, though according to Khan he hasn’t been to one since May and might as well be trying to communicate with Number 10 by semaphore for all the good it has done him. And since even before the national lockdown in March, various agents of the PM have been launching attacks on his autonomy, beginning with Dodgy Bobby Jenrick’s response to his draft London Plan and escalating to the colonisation of Transport for London under cover of the bailout conditions.
It goes on and on. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is a prime culprit, what with his party partisan insinuations that May’s TfL bailout was partly necessary because it has been run badly under Khan, and his performative heavy sighing over the cost of repairing Hammersmith Bridge. (TfL has cut thousands of jobs since 2016 and the effect of Khan’s fares freeze on TfL revenues was tiny compared with the crunch of Covid. Senior TfL figures think that without the freeze they’d have reached crisis point about a fortnight later, or a month at most).
The London Mayor isn’t the capital’s only political figure, Labour or Conservative, to be fed up with being informed at the 11th hour from on high about this tweak or that to anything from curfews to test and trace, or despairing of wasting their breath on government cloth ears. This is not a “north-south divide” thing, no matter how much it suits Rotheram and Burnham to say so. It is centralisation-devolution thing.
Khan struck a far more progressive note than his northern counterparts when referring to their disquiet in a statement released on Monday. “I fully support the calls from northern leaders for a more thorough process of consultation and engagement between central and local government on decision making relating to the virus,” he said in a statement. “Our national response would be so much stronger if the government didn’t treat local leaders as adversaries or with suspicion, but as essential partners in tackling this pandemic.”
That’s the agenda all big city and metro mayors should unite around in public – as, I’m told, they do in private. “Levelling up” depends on it. The government’s talk on this theme has so far been little more than that. Groupthink displays of doing down London whenever an opportunity arises do not qualify. There is no policy programme and no outward sign of grasping that spreading economic growth more evenly across the country will not be achieved by treating London as the rest of the nation’s adversary. The irony is that Burnham in particular often seems complicit in this populist fiction. Observations by Middlesbrough’s Mayor, Andy Preston, that London has become “fat, lazy and arrogant” suggests he wants to get in on the act too.
The UK’s heavy economic dependence on its capital is unhealthy. It is also a fact of UK economic life, and has been for decade upon decade, despite recurring “rebalancing” efforts by governments of different stripes. London really is the goose that lays the nation’s golden eggs: over £30 billion in taxes raised in the capital are spent across the rest of the country each year. What happens if you starve the goose? Less gold to go round.
Any realistic measures to reduce geographical inequalities between regions and, crucially, within them will need to be long-term, tailored to the distinctive needs of very different towns and cities, and involve a major surrender of power not from “London” as a city but from Whitehall as a state of mind. And London’s regional government needs that just as much as those of Manchester, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. To “level up” Covid UK we need a cure for north-south divide disease.
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