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. 

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times