The notion that the new Conservative national government is going to lessen London’s economic dominance and heal the UK’s gaping “north-south divide” is certainly a novel one. Fellow Britons in former “red wall” areas will surely be as intrigued as we smug cosmopolitans to see how a swashbuckling Boris of the North intends to liberate “Workington man” from decades of derision and decline, for which, in some eyes, the capital city, whose magnificence our Prime Minister spent eight years proclaiming when he was its Mayor, is largely to blame.
Indulge my snarking, just for now. I need no convincing that the nation’s huge dependence on London’s economic power – for jobs, tax revenues, and that commanding global presence we are assured Brexit won’t diminish – is unhealthy and in need of correction. The capital’s vast magnetic attraction for the energetic, entrepreneurial and adventurous young from everywhere else across the land makes me uncomfortable as well as awed and rather grateful (I write as an arrival from Nowheresville with next to nothing four decades ago). It’s been years since I spent time in Bolsover or Leigh, or indeed the Valley towns of South Wales, but the ravages of de-industrialisation were amply apparent to me even then.
How, though, is all that disillusion and disparity going to be made to change? On the face of it, almost no one seems to have much idea. The first requirement for solving any problem is to accurately grasp precisely what that problem is, but even this appears beyond some of those pontificating about it most loudly.
Shining exceptions include David Phillips of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who has drawn out the different ways in which inequality between regions can be quantified, noting that when different measures are applied the degree of inequality found between regions varies considerably. Another is Chris Giles of the Financial Times, whose latest piece on the subject includes further explanations of how characterisations of geographical inequalities crucially depend on how areas compared with each other are defined and on the criteria for advantage versus disadvantage used.
He draws to our attention too the unhappy view of the Industrial Strategy Council, which advises the government, that a big part of the problem – and it feels mean even to point it out – is that many of the “left behind” towns Theresa May rightly identified as meriting help with catching up only became significant settlements in the first place because they formed around industries that have long since died or shrivelled radically: think of textiles, coal mining and steel; think of fishing and seaside tourism. Giles also brings us the sobering news that the high output of London’s workers compared with the average of compatriots elsewhere is far from new. The current gap is exactly the same as it was in 1900, more than a century ago. The difference shrank for a while, but started widening again from 1980.
The larger context for all this has been the recovery of cities and their phenomenal growth, with London as a luminous example. As “traditional” industries have atrophied, new and modernised ones have grown in agglomerating clusters in the big urban areas, pulling the higher-educated and ambitious towards them. British governments have been seeking to arrest what has previously been dubbed “the drift to the south” for well over half a century. Labour under Harold Wilson got elected in 1964 with a programme for reversing it, which is why there is a tax office in Bootle and vehicle licensing is handled in Swansea. Yet the “drift” has not been arrested.
At the same time, geographical inequalities within regions are frequently overlooked in the “levelling up” discourse, as large averages obscure big parts of what it is, inconveniently for some, a very complicated picture. It is too readily forgotten that London’s overall poverty rate is the highest in the country and that it has its own “left behind” towns and districts within its boundaries.
What is to be done? Boris Johnson knows better than most that there is truth within the slogan that when London does well the rest of the country benefits: he used it often during his eight years at City Hall, as did his predecessor and as does his successor. With the first budget of his premiership only nine days away, he cannot be unaware that if London’s economy slides it will be bad news for everyone. Jack Brown’s new report for Centre For London has underlined just how fundamental is Central London in particular, taking in the City and the West End, to the UK as a whole. This astounding concentration of wealth creation in such a tiny space might give good grounds for disquiet, but how would the UK make up the shortfall were it diminished or disappeared?
There is a huge and subtle policy challenge to be grappled with here, and it is easy to forget that others have tried and failed to meet it before. Much of the foreground noise has been a distraction at best. Is it too jaundiced to dismiss recurring cries for Parliament to be relocated to Birmingham or Manchester as mere attention-seeking ploys of journalists and politicians? Is it protesting too much to point out to those proclaiming that London gets more than its fair share of infrastructure investment that London’s public transport also carries more than its fair share – many times more – of people who live and work here?
We need to break out of the barren cycle of resentments and recognise that the UK’s cities and regions are interdependent and also have many problems in common. It might help if London’s champions found a new way of talking about what is, nonetheless, and like it or not, a relationship marked by subsidy and dependency. Attempts are underway to make common cause between both big city Mayors and local government bodies, the latter seen in collaborations between London Councils and Core Cities UK. Jack Brown’s excellent Centre For London report published last year on strengthening ties between “capital and country” provides a robust and imaginative template for action.
And dare we hope that Johnson’s government will have the vision and nerve to do the thing so many UK governments have been so reluctant to do; to boldly devolve serious new powers to London and the UK’s other big cities, together with command of the resources they need for getting on with creating their own futures?
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