Leader: The north-south divide is not inevitable. England must not become two nations

The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme.

No part of the country is the subject of greater condescension and misunderstanding than the north of England. “Desolate”, “barren” and “grim” are the epithets of choice for those unacquainted with the land beyond Birmingham. Over the following pages, Rachel Cooke, Philip Hensher, Ben Chu and others dispel these clichés and describe the north’s true qualities: its natural beauty, its cultural vibrancy, its ethnic diversity, its economic inventiveness.

If the region’s woes have been overstated, the divide between it and the south remains unmistakable. While unemployment has fallen to just 5.9 per cent in the south-east, it has risen to 10.2 per cent in the north-east and to 8.9 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. Ninety-six per cent of all employment growth in England in the past year has taken place in London, the south-east, the south-west and the east of the country. Far from enjoying the fruits of the recovery, the north is barely emerging from recession.

The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme. In 2010 Nick Clegg vowed: “We’re not going to allow a great north-south divide to reappear.” That is precisely what has occurred. Local authorities in the northeast and the north-west have been forced to cut spending by 12 per cent, compared to just 4.6 per cent in the south-east. Worse, the north has been drained of state investment, with 89 per cent of transport spending allocated to London and the south-east, including £16.5bn for Crossrail and £6.5bn for the Thameslink upgrade.

The government has championed High Speed 2 as a means of bridging the divide, but by strengthening the gravitational pull of London and reducing the number of northern intercity services the project (which, if it goes ahead, will not be completed until 2033) risks having the reverse effect. The lack of private as well as public investment in the region reflects its political weakness. While Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond act as cheerleaders for London and Scotland, respectively, the north has no equivalent figure of national prominence. All attempts at devolution in the past decade have failed; the northeast voted overwhelmingly against an elected assembly in 2004 (prompting the shelving of planned referendums in the northwest and Yorkshire); Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield rejected the proposed creation of directly elected mayors last year. With London increasingly dominant and Scotland likely to gain greater powers if it votes against independence next year, the danger is that the north of England will become even more marginalised. Business leaders have already warned of how a fiscally autonomous Scotland could attract investment away from the region by judicious use of tax cuts and capital allowances.

There is nothing inevitable about a growing north-south divide but more imaginative policymaking will be required. All parties should consider the proposals recently made by IPPR North, including the decentralisation of housing and transport powers, the creation of a northern investment and trade board, the establishment of Manchester as a second international airport hub and the localisation of business rates.

In 1962 Harold Macmillan’s home secretary Henry Brooke warned: “If we do not regard it as a major government responsibility to take this situation in hand and prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south, I am sure our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.” Five decades later, the task identified by this One Nation Tory remains the same. If the government is to achieve its stated ambitions to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on the City of London and to widen social mobility, it cannot do so on the basis of a prosperous south and a stagnant north. The divisions that were sharpened during austerity must be healed now, during recovery.