Britain’s regions less equal than divided Germany, UK2070 conference hears

Lord Kerslake.
Lord Kerslake.
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Britain has been “decoupled” into three nations, with the North of England increasingly separated economically from London and the prosperous south-east, a conference of business and political leaders heard yesterday.

Years of prioritising the needs of the capital had created more inequality between the UK’s regions than had been the case in Germany three decades ago when the Berlin Wall came down, the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake, said.

But while Germany had put in place “spatial plans” to correct the imbalance between the productive western towns and the poorest in the east, Britain had moved in the opposite direction, he said.

The figures emerged in the first report of the independent UK2070 commission into the country’s “deep-rooted spatial inequalities”, whose findings were presented at the conference in Leeds.

“Germany has moved towards becoming one country. But we’ve moved from being one country towards being money,” Lord Kerslake, who chairs the commission, told The Yorkshire Post.

“Some parts of the North now have lower productivity than in some parts of East Germany when unification happened.

“But Germany made a conscious effort to bring the two parts together. It invested one and a half trillion over 25 years.

“Compare that with the stop-start, underpowered policies we’ve had in the UK.”

Lord Kerslake, a former chief executive of Sheffield Council, said the UK’s lack of a national policy on spatial planning, in which authorities map out the distribution of people and activities, had stymied the economies of the North.

“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,” he said.

“Nor is there a systematic national auditing of the patterns of government investment. In contrast, the German government deployed a spatial framework to tackle the social and economic inequalities.”

Calling for more devolved decision-making and a wholesale reevaluation of the way public money is distributed, he added: “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.

The conference heard that within the 36 counties that make up the OECD economic development group, Britain ranked 28th in a table of regional inequality, with London and Scotland ahead of a third “nation” comprising the North, Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Despite the efforts of successive governments to tackle this gap and the undoubted successes of individual places, it has grown wider,” Lord Kerslake said. “Unless we take decisive action, this gap will continue to grow. Brexit, particularly a no deal Brexit, is likely to exacerbate these trends.”

He said economic differences also led social divisions.

“A poor child in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a similarly disadvantage child in Hartlepool.”

“Despite the real achievements of northern cities like Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool, the cities that are pulling away from the national average in terms of growth are in predominantly in the south,” Lord Kerslake said.