Yet again, the budget pushes the North a little further from the South

It's two nation Britain.

With growth forecasts halved to 0.6 per cent this year, and unemployment rising again in the north of England, this needed to be a budget for growth across the UK. Instead, the headline measures will do more to further inflate house prices and childcare costs in London and very little to boost regional economic opportunities. Meanwhile, further public spending cuts – not least in pay and benefits - will have a continued deflationary impact on many Northern towns and cities.

The budget has come on a day when unemployment figures show the North-South divide widening further – up by 10,000 people across the north of England in the past quarter compared with a 17,000 fall in London.

Measures such as the increase in the income tax threshold and the National Insurance allowance for small businesses will be welcomed by many but won’t have the effect of rebalancing the economy – rather, they will tend to benefit those areas where wages are higher and the business base is broader.

More significantly, measures to increase new house building are to be welcomed but there is a significant risk that making it easier for borrowers will simply prop up prices – indeed, inflate prices – rather than getting additional homes built. It is not clear that Help to Buy will generate additional new housing starts, beyond what would have been undertaken anyway (which will certainly not be the case for mortgage subsidies that are not linked to new-build) and the 15,000 new homes promised in the budget go nowhere near most estimates which suggest we need to build an extra 250,000 new homes a year to meet rising demand. Similarly, childcare changes will soon be wiped out as providers inflate costs with little additional provision.

Of those measures that will stimulate growth it is too little too late. It is encouraging news that the Chancellor has broadly endorsed the Heseltine report but with government sources suggesting that resources going into the "single pot" will be in the “lower billions” rather than the £49 billion Heseltine recommended – and even then not until April 2015 – this will hardly be a short-term stimulus.

The £3bn boost in infrastructure spending is something that IPPR North and many others have been calling for many months but will do little to help us catch the levels of capital investment spent in other nations and once again won’t land until 2015/16. Furthermore, we cannot hope this will boost regional growth when we currently plan to spend £2,595 per person on transport in London compared to just £115 per person in the north. Transport spending must be devolved more fairly to have a real impact.

With much evidence pointing towards the critical role regional economic development is playing in stimulating national economies across the developed world, this budget – however populist – will do little to restore the economic health of the nation and will ultimately be regarded as a missed opportunity.

But perhaps the bigger tragedy than this missed opportunity is the fact that regional prosperity hangs so much on central government decision-making at all. With greater fiscal decentralisation economic growth could be better tailored to the particular needs of local and regional economies and less dependent upon the big levers so clumsily wielded by chancellor after chancellor. Such reform is long overdue.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.