No escape from Mammon? The Shard, near London Bridge. Photo: Cityscape Digital
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Leader: The London question

The capital’s economic dominance ensures that investing in it will produce a higher return than in other regions and makes it difficult to justify investing elsewhere. This logic merely tightens London’s stranglehold. 

The referendum on Scottish independence is not a vote about Scotland,” Danny Dorling writes in his essay on page 26. “It is a vote about London.” More than for any other comparable European country, the capital of the United Kingdom – Europe’s only true megacity – dominates national life. With just 13 per cent of the population, London produces 22 per cent of the UK’s wealth; through major projects such as Crossrail, it swallows a disproportionate share of its infrastructure funding. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that per-capita transport spending in London is 500 times as much as that in the north-east of England.

London’s economic dominance ensures that investing in the capital will produce a higher return than doing so in other regions. That makes it difficult to justify investing elsewhere. This logic merely tightens London’s stranglehold. Consequently, when the Yes Scotland campaign warns Scots of the dangers of voting No, it makes references to being ruled not by the English but by London. Indeed, in his New Statesman lecture in March, Alex Salmond likened London to a dark star, “inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”.

On the question of the north-south divide, it is tempting to view the UK as a rich country in which only a few de­industrialised regions have fallen behind. However, it is London and its wealth that are the true outliers. New figures from Inequality Briefing showed that Britain has nine of the ten poorest areas in the whole of northern Europe. In parts of Wales and in Cornwall, the average income is less than £14,000 a year: once living costs are taken into account, this leaves residents poorer than many in the former communist states of eastern Europe.

Inner London, by contrast, is the single richest region in Europe. If our leaders and the deracinated plutocrats who gather in the capital seem unconcerned about the relative poverty of much of Britain, it is because they live within the walls of Versailles.

This is not only iniquitous; it is potentially disastrous for the rest of the country. It puts increasing pressure on housing stock in the south-east of England, driving up prices and leaving many of us ever more addicted to debt. It raises the cost of doing business in London, rendering the capital increasingly uncompetitive, while draining skills and expertise from other regions. It forces people to commute ever longer distances to work and leaves them captives of our train companies. Worst of all, it makes the national economy especially vulnerable to global financial shocks.

The leaders of both major parties are belatedly discussing devolving power from Westminster to the English regions and additional powers to the other nations of the UK. The main cities, meanwhile, are being encouraged to follow London’s example and set up combined authorities: resurrected versions of the old metropolitan counties, back from the dead to plot grand regional infrastructure plans.

However, all these plans are built on the assumption that the Treasury will retain ultimate control of the purse strings. New powers would be exercised only on sufferance from Westminster. It is unclear, too, whether political devolution will be enough to solve the problem of London’s dominance, without incentives to encourage private investors to invest in the regions. That might require some kind of regional banking system such as exists in Germany.

Professor Dorling proposes a different path: a return to the sort of government intervention that has been unfashionable for a generation. He favours more regulation of private rental markets; more publicly funded housebuilding; and changes to land use rules, such as the greenbelt. It would require having a plan for London. “The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally. It reacts rather than instigates,” he writes.

If we are serious about reducing London’s stranglehold over the United Kingdom, trusting to the free market will never be enough. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital