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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear