The Spending Review will widen the north-south divide

Squeezing disproportionate amounts of public spending out of the regions will leave the country fiscally unbalanced and with regional disparities on the scale of most developing nations.

At Budget time we are now familiar with tables setting out the impact of announcements – particularly tax and benefit changes – on different household types. The Treasury Green Book now publishes a familiar bar chart showing the net effect of each Budget on different household deciles in order that we can judge how progressive its measures have been.

But what is less common is any analysis of how big fiscal decisions affect different areas of the country. At the last Budget, the Financial Times created an ‘Austerity Map’ of Britain showing how benefit changes were affecting different local authority areas but it is possible to go further than this and to map how changes across nearly all aspects of government spending affect different regions.

As part of a wider piece of work on government spending, IPPR North has carried out an analysis of yesterday's Spending Round announcements. Assuming that broad spending patterns in 2015/16 are similar to those today, in aggregate, departmental cuts will reduce public expenditure in the North East by £57 per person and in the North West and Yorkshire and Humber by £50 per person, compared with £43 per person in London and £39 per person in the South East.

Perhaps most significantly, though, when we look at the impact of departmental cuts as a proportion of the size of the regional economy (as measured by gross value added) the Northern regions are – once again - hardest hit with the North East suffering three times as much as London. 

Consider this alongside announcements concerning capital spending and the picture is compounded further with spending in London more than ten times that of the North East. As a nation we are already spending more than 500 times as much on transport infrastructure in London than we are in the North East, 25 times more than in the North West, but with the announcement of a government commitment to a further £9bn for Crossrail 2, it is likely that the capital city will swallow up more than 90% of all regional transport infrastructure investment in the coming decade.

Government will argue that its commitment to local growth comes in the form of the Single Local Growth Fund – the pot of unringfenced funding which will be bid for by business-led Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). But given that Michael Heseltine proposed a £49bn fund over four years, the announcement is less than one-fifth of what LEPs might have hoped for, only going to prove once again how hard Whitehall finds putting the rhetoric of decentralisation into practice.

If government is serious about rebalanced growth then it must recognise that national prosperity depends upon regional prosperity. Squeezing disproportionate amounts of public spending out of the regions may well have a political and ideological logic to it, but it will leave the country fiscally unbalanced and with regional disparities on the scale of most developing nations. Mercifully, this is only a single year Spending Round, but it is beholden upon any incoming government to reverse this shocking pattern of public expenditure and ensure that northern prosperity is national prosperity once again.

Ed Cox is Director of IPPR North

@edcox_ippr

The Angel of the North sculpture overlooks the match between Gateshead and Esh Winning on May 2, 2013 in Gateshead. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser