There is nothing new in the ‘North-South Divide’ - a division arising from the effects of de-industrialisation and many would say, successive government policies since the 1980s. The economic policy of ‘trickle down’ where, so the argument goes, wealth trickles down to benefit all has not worked. The gap between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is becoming wider, while behind such simplistic positions lie myriad complex forces - push and pull factors.
It must be common ground that we all wish for a fair society, and the publication of the White Paper reigniting the debate and action is welcome. Equality of opportunity and ambition should be readily agreed. How we achieve that, and the interventions required, is more complex.
First, the inequalities in our society are structural which manifest geographically: inequality occurs across our four nations, and there are deprived communities in many of our UK cities in every region. Through our work with GreenkeeperUK and Plymouth Council it was noted that there is a bus route which, as it travels east to west across the city, sees life expectancy fall by 7 years.
So, this is not about the geography of the north v south, but a structural issue with an often geographic manifestation. Any response needs to recognise this.
Second, there is nothing new in targeting government investment. Indeed, it is important for government to target investment (which is after all taxpayers’ money) where the widest possible benefits to society can be secured. The relocation of the DVLC to Swansea, investment by HMRC in Newcastle and the BBC in Salford, are part of a long running strategy but perhaps ad hoc? Such decisions must surely be made within a long-term ambition and coherent and overt strategy.
Third, London is frequently painted as the ‘bad boy’: sucking in resources and innovation at the behest of our other great cities and regions. Yet London is a world city, and competes with Frankfurt, Paris, New York and Tokyo. Londoners will argue that it requires investment to generate the wealth that the whole country benefits from, and that it has its own issues of inequality and deprivation to address. Perhaps here is the crux of the issue: has the county as a whole benefited from the global success of London? If not, why not? And if the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then how do we keep the good while losing the bad?
Fourth, and here lies a challenge, you cannot ‘buck the market’. Interventions need to be targeted at stimulating the market, not manipulating it. Poorly conceived policies of seeking to redistribute investment in London to the regions could well lead to that investment being lost to other global cities or one-off flourishes that do not lead to long term benefit. If the objective is to stimulate investment, then business and industry need certainty of support in the medium to long-term.
This brings us back to a request we have made repeatedly and for a number of years. We need the context at a national level against which individual policy decisions and fiscal interventions can be co-ordinated and judged, and to which the market can respond with certainty. Context that sets bold, coordinated ambitions within a long-term framework, which every region, Mayor or town can feed into, and which sets out policies that will endure beyond the short-term electoral cycle. Our call for a National Plan, led centrally, still very much stands – and even more so in the face of devolution.
The publication of the White Paper should therefore spark healthy debate. I hope that there will be general acceptance and common ground as to the core objectives and the benefit to us all of a fairer society. How we achieve that and what that means for communities up and down the county is more challenging. But a challenge that we should all embrace.
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Levelling Up, White Paper, Planning Reform, UK Housing, Build Back Better