Northerners are quite right to take issue with poor reporting and a national media dominated by metropolitan interests. What is lacking in England is a mature understanding of the different and complementary roles that different regions have to play within the national economy. The lack of any serious spatial or regional economic planning exacerbates the sense of a North-South divide and polarises views both within and outside the capital, writes Ed Cox.
Last week saw two very interesting contributions to the debate about national and regional economy and identity. Andy Beckett’s piece in The Guardian, which likened the North East to Detroit complete with stereotypical images of derelict factories and boarded up shops, prompted a storm of protest with many regional representatives rounding on the London-based journalist for overlooking North Eastern assets and signs of economic health.
Later in the week the Centre for Cities and Centre for London think-tanks published new research into public perceptions of London. Their findings demonstrated significant antipathy towards the capital city in the rest of England. Only a quarter of non-Londoners feel the capital benefits the economy where they live while almost two-thirds say the location of central government in Westminster means political decisions favour the city over everywhere else. And three-quarters of people who do not live in London think the media concentrates too much on the capital. (This may explain something of the opprobrium aimed at Mr Beckett).
Northerners are quite right to take issue with poor reporting and a national media dominated by metropolitan interests. In a subsequent follow-up, the Guardian Northerner editor, Helen Pidd, bemoaned the fact that she was the only journalist still stationed in the region for a newspaper once established in Manchester. It is also important to listen to the pollsters although evidence of disgruntlement in the regions is hardly any surprise. Indeed, there is a significant risk in all this that North-South to and fro, not least the howls of protest at misreporting, only reinforces ‘chippy’ stereotypes and mitigates against a more balanced and reasonable debate.
Rather than act defensively, the North of England needs to assert its considerable role in the national economy. With a quarter of the population contributing a fifth of economic output, the northern economy is twice the size of Scotland and, if it were a nation, it would rank as the eighth-largest in the EU, ahead of Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. The transformation of cities like Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield has demonstrated that transition from an industrial past is possible and profitable. What is more, it makes a significant contribution to the resilience of the national economy; from advanced manufacturing, to energy and water, to exports.
But the North also has to accept its challenges. Deindustrialisation still carries its scars and its productivity levels are relatively weak. But these two issues are related. Too often productivity is judged to be a function of individual laziness and lack of upward mobility. As Ha-Joon Chang has recently pointed out, productivity has far less to do with personal performance and instead reflects the weaknesses of a poor skills system and the under-investment in infrastructure which result from overly-centralised economic planning. High productivity levels in London and the South East should come as no surprise given the fact that as a nation we have consistently invested more than double the amount per capita in economic affairs as we do in any other part of the country.
Figure 1: Government spending on economic affairs and skills per person, 2011/12 (£)
The reason such debates seem to take such a shrill tone is that, unlike in most developed nations, what is lacking in England is a mature understanding of the different and complementary roles that different regions have to play within the national economy. In Germany, for example, each city seems to know its place and function within the so-called urban hierarchy and government invests accordingly to support its national plan, devolving power and fiscal autonomy to the lander accordingly. But in the UK, the lack of any serious spatial or regional economic planning exacerbates the sense of a North-South divide and polarises views both within and outside the capital.
It is ironic that government has recently rejected the plans of Local Enterprise Partnerships as being too generic when government itself seems to have little more than an elaborate collection of projects and sectoral strategies. Of course there is scope for city leaders from the public and the private sector to better articulate their own sense of economic purpose, but it is time policymakers and opinion-formers at every level got over the punch-and-judy of regional stereotyping and took our national geography more seriously.
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