Tear down Britain’s wall of despair if the North is to be powered up – Bob Kerslake

Newspapers of the North are taking collective action to force political leaders to back the Northern Powerhouse agenda.
Newspapers of the North are taking collective action to force political leaders to back the Northern Powerhouse agenda.
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TWO weeks ago we published the first report of the UK 2070 Commission – an independent review of the deep rooted spatial inequalities in this country.

The conclusions of our report make sobering reading.

Firstly, on a comparison of the UK with 30 OECD countries across a broad range of 28 indicators, the UK come 28th in terms of interregional inequalities.

Lord Bob Kerslake is the former head of the Civil Service.

Lord Bob Kerslake is the former head of the Civil Service.

This is Eurovision Song Contest levels of performance!

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Secondly, despite the efforts of successive governments to tackle this gap and the undoubted successes of individual places, it has grown wider.

There has in effect been a decoupling of London economy from the rest of the UK.

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The benefits of growth are not ‘trickling down’.

And thirdly, unless we take decisive action this gap will continue to grow with London and the wider South East taking over 50 per cent of the jobs growth whilst constituting only 37 per cent of the population.

Brexit, particularly a no deal Brexit, is likely to exacerbate these trends.

The impact of these acute and growing economic spatial disparities is threefold:

Firstly, it means that we are not taking full advantage of the economic opportunities that those parts of the Uk have to offer.

Secondly, it creates an imbalance of wealth and opportunity that in turn creates division. A poor child in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university as a similarly disadvantage child in Hartlepool.

Thirdly, it creates enormous pressures in terms of population growth, housing affordability, an overloaded infrastructure and the environment on the economically performing parts of the country.

Despite the real achievements of the Northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool, the UK cities that are pulling away from the national average in terms of growth are in predominantly in the South.

Our fundamental challenge on spatial inequality in this country is between regions not between towns and cities.

In our report, we analyse the actions of successive governments to address this gap.

We find these to have been fragmented, too short term and significantly outweighed in terms of spending by the investment that has gone in to London and the South East.

Our report is certainly not a counsel of despair though.

We cite the example of Germany, which started from a much worse place on reunification but has made considerable progress towards creating a single country.

Professor Philip McCann will speak more about this later this morning so that I won’t steal his thunder.

However it is striking to note that the UK is now more interregionally unequal than Germany was in 1995, in the immediate aftermath of reunification.

Germany has two countries and are working hard to create one.

We have taken one country and are moving towards creating many.

Whilst rebalancing the UK economy is not mission impossible, we do need a radical change in direction.

Firstly, much greater genuine devolution of both powers and money.

It can’t just be a coincidence that as well as being one of the most unequal countries we are also one of the most centralised.

Greater devolution needs to happen to both Mayors of combined authorities and local government generally.

In our report we also support the creation of four trans regional or provincial bodies to take the bigger decisions on infrastructure.

Secondly, harnessing both the new and the local economies. The next industrial revolution has the potential make inequalities worse but could also be harnessed to deliver more balanced and sustainable growth. It’s about Grimsby as well as Graphene.

Thirdly, aligning our ambitions through a National Spatial Framework.

It is extraordinary that spatial plans in some form exist in most of Western Europe as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but we do not have one for England.

Establishing a UK spatial framework would allow us to build on the work of the devolved nations and provide the vital context to big national investment decisions such as HS2.

Fourthly and finally, establishing a substantial UK Renewal Fund to invest in rebalancing. We have proposed that at least an additional £10bn per annum should be spent explicitly on rebalancing investment over a period of 25 years. This should be above and beyond existing spending plans.

I should say now that these four programmes are very much the first stage of thinking and we welcome views on how they should be developed.

We are particularly keen to explore how our plans should align with the other great challenge of our age, tackling climate change.

The reaction to our report has been very positive, with strong media coverage generally and particularly in the Financial Times and in the regional papers such as the Manchester Evening News and The Yorkshire Post.

This week, the 30 regional titles in the North all ran front pages on the same day calling for an end to the North-South divide.

To conclude, we are at an interesting time in British politics with the enormous uncertainty and risk of Brexit, but also the opportunity to influence the debate across the political parties about what should be the post Brexit renewal programme - whatever post Brexit might mean.

For me, developing a credible plan to tackle our growing and unsustainable regional imbalances forms an essential part of that renewal programme.

The evidence of the growing gap is overwhelming.

The question is whether we have the collective will to do something about it.

Lord Bob Kerslake is the former head of the Civil Service. He was previously chief executive of Sheffield City Council.