Growth figures mean nothing if you live in part of the country that's not growing

Rather than hyperbole over a national growth figure, we need regionalised figures to show how prosperity is unevenly spread.

The politics of the quarterly growth figures underpin a narrative that either says "things are getting better, "we were right", or "things are getting worse, you were wrong", depending on whether you’re George Osborne of Ed Balls. So this morning’s announcement that growth in the last quarter of 2013 was 0.7 per cent - with growth estimated at 1.9 per cent overall last year - allows the Chancellor to crow that there is "more evidence that our long-term economic plan is working."

But this is an aggregated national figure which disguises what is happening around the country. We only have to look at Monday’s report from the Centre for Cities think tank to see that not every part of the UK is jumping for joy. It exposes a massive, jaw-dropping imbalance in the economy, with London accounting for four out of every five jobs created in the private sector from 2010-12.

So rather than hyperbole over a national growth figure, we instead need regionalised figures to show how prosperity is unevenly spread. And we need the debate about the economy refocused around how we narrow these fluctuations. Instead of London and the south east booming and parts of the rest of the country being left in the deep freeze, we need to see London’s over-heated economy cooled and our regional economies thawed.

This is essential if One Nation politics is to mean anything. London is buoyed on a sea of public cash, with everything from civil service jobs through to public transport subsidies locking-in massive regional economic inequalities. The Centre for Cities report shows that not only is London dominating private sector jobs growth, but public sector employment too. While Birmingham lost 9,300 public sector jobs between 2010-12, London actually gained 66,300.

These advantages need to levelled-out to spread wealth and opportunity further, helping the national economy work better and become less reliant on London, but also making London’s economy more rational in the process. Indeed, with house prices in the capital now soaring, ordinary Londoners would benefit from some economic rebalancing. In the 12 months to November 2012, London’s property prices rose, on average, by 11.6 per cent. In contrast, they rose by just 0.6 per cent in the north west.

We did have regional economic strategies in place until this government scrapped the regional development agencies in 2010. This time, however, the task of narrowing economic disparities needs to sit at the heart of Treasury policy-making. Every lever of policy should be looking to release opportunity across the UK, utilising underused capacity across the country and spreading prosperity, particularly in terms of private sector investment, as widely as possible.

Rather than government and opposition pouncing on quarterly growth figures as evidence for their conflicting accounts of the state of the economy, it would be far better to have a regionalised breakdown so that we can start to have an honest, evidence-based discussion about the state of the real economy.

A man walks past boarded up shops in Bristol. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.