Henri Murison and Richard Brown: Whitehall must devolve powers to help the North and London

How can the economic gap between London and the rest of the country be narrowed?How can the economic gap between London and the rest of the country be narrowed?
How can the economic gap between London and the rest of the country be narrowed?
THIS week, Centre for London published a report about the relationship between the capital and the rest of the country.

London, UK argues for the importance of London to the whole UK, as a global hub and economic engine, but also reflects the growing strains in the relationship.

London is still seen as the remote centre of government, grabbing more than its share of resources, and not really making a difference for communities round the country.

The report tackles some simplistic myths.

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Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Too often, the clear economic divide between North and South has been misunderstood, and misrepresented.

For example, it has been assumed that in the case of Brexit that the North all voted overwhelmingly to leave.

In fact, in a number of major cities that wasn’t the case, and in many parts of the South – such as Gravesham or Thanet in Kent, or even parts of outer London – the results were much more convincing in the other direction.

Last weekend there was some gloating over the fact that Sunderland, which did vote to leave the EU, has seen a new model pulled from its Nissan plant, which will now be produced in Japan which has signed a free trade deal with the EU, at least partly owing to the economic uncertainty caused by Brexit.

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We can debate endlessly the dimensions of what is desirable or achievable in our relationship with the EU – and we are.

But if the Northern Powerhouse had been a policy in the 1980s, or even at the dawn of the millennium, those places which have most fallen farthest behind the economic growth of London and the South-East could have closed the gap.

And it was many of those places that did vote, convincingly, to leave.

It is not London’s boroughs, which include some of the poorest places in the UK, or the Mayor of London who are to blame for the lack of investment in infrastructure, or schools, in the North. In fact, the existence and success of the London Mayoralty proved the case for directly-elected, powerful Mayors in our Northern city-regions.

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Westminster has proved itself historically unable to face the tough questions and make long term decisions, so we should transfer power from Whitehall to those closer to the problems we need to address – whether they be in London or the North.

Our mayors have begun working closer and closer together, regardless of party affiliation, and are clear that taking power for their areas should not be at the expense of London.

Business-led organisations are also working together, recognising the mutual dependence set out in Centre for London’s report.

London First and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership work closely together, promoting the case for both Northern Powerhouse Rail and 
Crossrail 2.

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We are both pushing for the Chancellor to commit 1.2 per cent of GDP to be spent on infrastructure in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The National Infrastructure Commission has shown what the benefits of this commitment would be, not only to cities like London, Leeds and Newcastle, where emerging sectors such as digital are flourishing, but also to those nearby towns that are currently locked out success.

To change the country, as the report argues, we need to change Whitehall.

The divides between North and South, and between the most prosperous and least prosperous boroughs in London, need to be closed.

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Every permanent secretary should have spent some time, on secondment, working with a local authority or regional mayoral authority outside London.

This experience will help change them, and change the way the country is governed when they return to their departmental desks.

Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Richard Brown is research director of Centre for London.