Rebalancing Britain

Posted on March 24, 2014

 The Scottish referendum campaign is having an interesting  knock-on impact on English political debate.  The position and dominance of London – the place Scots most dislike about the United Kingdom in its present form, is being looked at more critically. There have been a couple of think tank-type report is recently , but the debate has moved quite a way beyond the narrow audiences that these reports usually attract. That in itself is a reflection of the way the ground is shifting. First out of the blocks was The Centre for Cities  ‘Cities Outlook 2014’ report. The document is mainly pretty dry, though jazzed up with unusual graphics and some different takes on the issues. Basically what it is saying is that  London has become super dominant in the UK economy, so much so that  four out of five private sector jobs are created in London and that every major city outside the South East  is losing young people to London with one in three 22-30 year olds ending up there. Put another way, London  accounted for  ten times as many private sector  jobs as any other city and also saw a growth in public sector jobs as well. By contrast Bradford, Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton Blackpool and Glasgow all saw employment shrink in both public and private sectors.

All this is very much backed up by work done for the Core Cities group (Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield) who have initiated an Independent City Growth Commission Chaired by Jim O’Neill, the Manchester born ex Goldman Sachs Chief Executive. Their focus is on how to make Britain less focussed on London in order to promote  higher levels of national growth and  create a less divided nation. Their plan is to issue a final report in the autumn in an attempt to set the agenda for the period leading up to the 2015 General Election.  Essentially the Core Cities interim report (Metro growth; the UK’s economic opportunity. RSA Feb 2014 )  argues that cities outside the South East  need to be built into  larger economic zones with better connections between them to create bigger markets and the kind of economies of scale for business that are to be found in London and the South East.

Meanwhile the BBC’s Evan Davis has been busying himself on a very similar topic. This mini-series  ‘Mind the Gap: London vs the rest’ on BBC2 in Marchlooked at how London manages to  earn more than one fifth of Britain’s income and continues to pull away in terms of  growth and development while other regions still feel the sting of recession. Davis had some jolly japes in tall cranes and large diggers across London in the search for the answers to his questions, but he knew that one very important one was staring him in the face, public investment in infrastructure. Transport  infrastructure investment is currently running at £5,000 per person pa in London (think Cross Rail) and just £700 per person pa in the English regions. Slightly perversely he took his viewers to visit the centre of  his proposed  new-city-region-to-challenge-London. Hebden Bridge. But of course he had a point and it was that Hebden Bridge is in the centre of a huge potential city region stretching across England from Liverpool to Hull via Manchester and Leeds. Hebden Bridge is in the middle of this city region in the Pennines,  rather winningly described  by one of its residents as the  city centre with an  ‘inverted green belt’ – and  places like Manchester and Leeds as its ‘suburbs’. This is far from outlandish. This part of the north of England really did challenge London for economic supremacy in the 19C with its coal, steel and cotton as well as ports to export to the Empire.

But can it be revived as an economic counter-balance to London? That seems to depend on political will and a desire to invest in the area, especially its transport infrastructure. The Centre for Cities report makes a telling comparison. While acknowledging that the combined economies of Leeds and Manchester are just one fifth the size of London it argues that they are unlikely to make the best of this combined scale because  of ‘weak transport links’ citing  ‘the  distance between Leeds and Manchester is around 30% shorter than between Cambridge and London  yet the quickest train takes four minutes longer..’. Jim O’Neill make a similar point in an interview (Observer 2 March 2014) about HS2, which he thinks will exacerbate the problem and simply make Birmingham a suburb of London, arguing that the money should be spent instead on creating a web of good links in the north, saying:  ‘In my judgement, for the national economy, that is way more important  than improving the speed of the link  from London to any of these places [Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds]’ .

Improving transport links in a new ‘super city’ is one dimension, but a couple of other factors are worthy of mention as well.  London is the financial, political and cultural capital of the UK. This doesn’t give a lot of space for other cities to shine, unlike in say Germany  with Frankfurt as its financial capital, Berlin as it political capital and Hamburg as its cultural capital. The same is true in Italy (Rome/Milan) and the USA, amongst others.  Moving Whitehall and Westminster out of London would do them a power of good. If Scotland stays in the UK, the British Parliament could meet in London occasionally, but the four ‘nations’ would have Parliaments of their own in other cities. More prosaically the Centre  for Cities report  suggests that all the core cities should have access to the same policy powers as London has,  ie strategic planning powers, powers over the budget  for its transport system and police force, and a super-city wide  elected assembly and directly elected mayor.  A revival of regional identity and local government could yet come out of these debates, and not before time.

This article first appeared as an INLOGOV blog post on 24 Mach 2014