The “north-south divide” looms large in our national conversation. It describes a sense, for us northerners, that our region hasn’t been given a fair shot at success. But the regions with the highest working-age poverty, after housing costs, are the west midlands, the north east – and London. So, clearly there is more going on than a simple north-south divide. And when we look at the full picture, we find a reason to bridge our regional divides, not deepen them.
Last week, the Fabian Society published the final report of our Commission on Poverty and Regional Inequality. In A Good Life in all Regions, we focus on what we have in common: a desire to tackle poverty and improve living standards in all our regions. Our commissioners came from across England – from London, Newcastle, Manchester and Cornwall.
Our starting point was simple: to acknowledge that the UK doesn’t have just one regional economic problem, but two. Firstly, low growth in many parts of the country. Secondly, overheating in London and the south east. Neither is acceptable. Both result in poverty. They must be tackled together.
The first regional problem is real, severe and avoidable. We have a major problem of low economic growth and poor job opportunities that stretches from Cornwall, across a swathe of the Midlands, to the North, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The problem also affects coastal communities in the east and south east. Successive in-depth analyses have shown the UK to be the most regionally unequal country in the developed world.
This is incontrovertible. And it is fair to say most Londoners recognise the challenge: our survey found that respondents in the capital were twice as likely to say regional inequality has a negative impact on the economy of the country as a whole (54 per cent) than a positive impact (22 per cent).
The second regional problem is also real, severe and avoidable – the overheating faced by London and the south east. The concentration of economic activity in a small corner of the capital doesn’t benefit many Londoners, and comes at a price they will be well aware of: spiralling housing costs, which pull one million in the capital below the poverty line.
Again, this is incontrovertible. But it is rarely incorporated into a complete picture of regional inequality. It can be hard for those of us outside of London to look beyond its very conspicuous prosperity to the reality of people’s everyday lives. But we must.
Crucially, one problem doesn’t negate the other: we must avoid the trap of implying that the low growth problem is less important because Londoners are poor too. And neither should we suggest that London’s poverty is somehow less important because the rest of the country has a low growth problem. Instead of pitting these truths against one another, we should acknowledge them both and try and find common cause.
That common cause will come in taking power down from central government into the regions and nations where it can be exercised in the interests of the people living there – for example, by investing in new social housing, sustaining vital bus services, or ensuring childcare is available locally.
To solve these problems, we also have to tackle the ingrained idea that only London – and perhaps Manchester and Birmingham too – can grow. In fact, the evidence shows there are a range of different assets which places offer to an economy, including but not limited to the agglomeration effects that cities produce. Actually, places close to cities, more than the cities themselves, show some of the greatest potential – places such as Cheshire or the M4 corridor. Because, in reality, towns and cities work together, and they need to do so more effectively if the UK is to prosper in the future.
Some of our leaders have explicitly recognised the need to move forward. Responding to our commission, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Devolution will be crucial to increasing prosperity, whether you live in London, Sheffield or the Wirral.” And Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: “It is critical that national, regional and local government continue to work together to extend and expand devolution across the whole of England.”
Hopefully this is the start of things to come. If all the regions and nations of the UK have more power in future, then perhaps they’ll use it to work together for the common good.