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What the north can learn from Boris

The north needs metro mayors to avoid being marginalised by a more powerful Scotland and a more powe

New Statesman
The Angel of the North. Photograph: Getty Images.

Boris Johnson launched his bid for re-election with the announcement that he would launch an inquiry into London’s funding, arguing that not enough investment goes to London.  Listening to this from a standpoint in the north of England, you can’t help but be filled with a mix of admiration and horror.

Let’s start with the horror. It is extraordinarily difficult to justify the claim that London is the victim of under-investment when compared to other parts of the country. Treasury figures on the distribution of identifiable public spending show that Londoners already benefit from the highest public spending per head in Great Britain. With £10,256 per head spent in London in 2010/11, compared to an England average of £8,588.  Even Scotland received less per head, despite the constant refrain that the Scots are in receipt of a particularly generous grant from Westminster.

What is more, if we look in greater detail at spending on economic investment – on functions like transport, science and technology, enterprise and economic development – spending in London is twice the England average, with £1,059 per person is spent in London against an England average of £515. 

Spending in London is already very high, and if we continue disproportionately to invest in the capital, we will continue to see the same patterns of economic disparity replicated across Britain time and time again.  By contrast, greater investment to release the potential of places like Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle would be good not only for the north but for the whole of the country.  It would serve to boost British growth overall and contribute to a more diverse and sustainable economy, that does not place all its eggs in one basket.  A better balanced economy would be better all round.

And so to the admiration.  Johnson's bid for more funding – and his claim to receive a favourable hearing in the corridors of power – amply demonstrate the soft power and influence that the mayoralty holds.  No matter what you may think of them, both he and Ken Livingstone have extended the powers of the Mayor and succeeded in giving concerns and priorities of London an airing on a national stage.  The worry for our northern cities is that they’re increasingly squeezed between a more powerful Scotland on the one hand and a more powerful mayor of London on the other. 

This coming May, England’s major cities will vote on whether to establish elected mayors.  Yes votes could serve to help our cities to lever greater powers out of Whitehall and bring some soft power and influence to these cities.  But the Mayor of London has a remit for the whole of London, while the other city mayors will only speak for the individual cities they’re elected to lead.  This is a step in the right direction, but what we really need in the future are metro mayors covering whole city regions – mayors for Greater Manchester or Tyneside.  They would really have the clout to counterbalance the London mayor, and ensure an alternative voice is heard on the national stage.

Katie Schmuecker is Associate Director at IPPR North.  Follow her @IPPR_Schmuecker