How to heal a divided nation?

BENJAMIN Disraeli coined the phrase that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. However, the figures released by the Office for National Statistics present unassailable evidence of something the northern public has long suspected – that the North-South divide is growing.

The latest data shows that the North underperforms on a string of economic and social indicators. Its shares of economic output, jobs and household income fall below its share of the population. It has lower labour productivity, shorter life expectancy and, on average, people are less happy than those in the rest of the country.

In summary, it is a comprehensive indictment of the decades-long failure to release the potential of regions such as Yorkshire, with the North as a whole being stymied by a lack of investment from successive governments and an obsession with the South East, for which this region has paid the price.

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Today, in Leeds, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, is heading a summit looking at how to create an economic core in the heart of the northern region that will enable it to compete, not just with the South, but with some of the biggest cities in the world.

The Government’s chosen means of delivering this “Northern Powerhouse” are expected to soon see Yorkshire’s cities follow in the footsteps of Manchester, where George Osborne is seeking to pilot his “Metro Mayors” model of devolved regional government.

Yet, as welcome as this overdue recognition of the problems facing the North is, the idea that this move amounts to economic self-determination is fanciful, to say the least.

The exact powers for 
these new northern leaders are sketchy, there are justifiable concerns that they will be bogged down by local politics and, above all, it is a model based on what is happening in London and imposed on the North by Whitehall.

Rather than representing an important marker point on the road to a healthier, wealthier North, there is a danger that it could be seen as little more than a last-gasp attempt to sway the region’s voters between now and next May’s general election.

Social climbing

Threat to PM’s ‘aspiration’ vision

TWO years ago, in a rousing speech at the Conservative Party conference, David Cameron pledged to turn Britain into an “aspiration nation”. This notion of a fairer society which championed the country’s “strivers” struck a chord with voters – and not only those who remembered when Britain was governed by its most meritocratic Prime Minister, justly proud of her climb from grocer’s shop to Downing Street.

The task confronting David Cameron in achieving his vision is starkly underlined, however, in new research which reveals that while there has been no decline in social mobility over recent decades, there has been a marked change in the direction of movement, with more people moving down the “social ladder” than up it.

The search for a better life is a fundamental goal for most people, especially when it comes to building a brighter future for their children. Take this incentive away and the impact on society would be significant.

Now that the recovery is under way, there must be a renewed focus on not just making society wealthier but making it fairer as well – not least in terms of convincing the young that their hard work will receive the rewards it warrants.

Creditably, the coalition has stuck to its commitments on matters such as ending child poverty. However, it must also recognise that long-term economic success depends on people having confidence that the return on their efforts will be proportionate to what they put in.

Return of Netto

Shoppers look set to be winners

AFTER a four-year absence from these shores, budget supermarket chain Netto has sensibly chosen Yorkshire as the launch-pad for its new charm offensive aimed at wooing the nation’s shoppers.

When the Danish retailer sold its stores to Asda in 2010 it was seen as evidence that discount chains could not cut it with Sainsbury’s, Tesco Morrisons and Asda.

Since then, the tables have been turned. Now, it is the big four that are losing billions of pounds in sales to Aldi and Lidl, which explains why Sainsbury’s

is taking a 50 per cent share in the relaunched Netto brand.

Its success will depend on whether it can achieve the right balance between price and quality which has served Aldi and Lidl so well.

The good news for shoppers is that Netto’s return can only mean increased competition for their custom – and that means even lower prices.