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It's regional inequality, stupid

Inequality within the United Kingdom is growing - not just between people, but its constituent parts. The next government will have to do more to turn the tide.

On a whole range of measures, Britain is more regionally divided than it was thirty years ago. The past five years have seen a re-assertion of this divide as nothing has been done to resolve the fundamental, deep-seated inequities between different parts of the UK. If we don’t do anything to address this in the coming five years, the whole country will lose out – not just those corners of our UK which are falling behind.  

These are the three core arguments which tie together all the contributions of a Unions 21 report on tackling regional inequalities, published today, which I have edited. A whole range of different authors – from think tanks, to other politicians and trade unionists - have produced chapters for it. It draws from new research on a range of Government statistics, as well as a Survation opinion poll specifically commissioned for this report, to inform its findings.

The results of Survation’s polling couldn’t be clearer: no matter where voters come from or what political party they support, more agree with the statement that “Britain is more regionally divided than it was thirty years ago” than disagree. This is particularly dramatic for Labour and UKIP supporters (57% of both agree with the statement) and northerners (53%). 

There is a strong feeling amongst much of the public that something has changed – and changed for the worse. The facts support their conclusions. The gulf in employment between southern regions of the UK and those further North (including the West Midlands), is higher than it was in the 1970s. OECD figures on growth in regional economies tell the same story: Britain had the highest rate of regional convergence compared with other OECD countries from 1950-1985, but since this point, Britain has seen the highest rate of regional divergence of all OECD member states.   

It’s easy to forget that back in the post-war period, London was not nearly the economic powerhouse it is today. Its population, like that of the northern industrial cities, was declining. It was only relatively recently, from the 1980s, that this trend reversed – but only in London. Hull, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are still smaller than they used to be.

Roll the clock back further, into the 19th century, and the contrast becomes even starker. Industrial powerhouses, particularly concentrated in the north and midlands, accorded these regions a level of economic prosperity comparable to that of London and the South-East. This economic clout also translated into political power, and regional cities were, if anything, more autonomous than London. Birmingham of the 19th century had its own elected mayor in Joseph Chamberlain whilst London, governed by a weak network of antiquated boroughs, had no mayor, and was largely in thrall to central government.

It is almost a mirror image of modern-day England: in the 1980s, Britain was becoming more centralised just as other European countries were devolving further powers. ONS figures show that across the period 1977 to 1995, GDP per head actually declined in the East and West Midlands, North East, North West, Wales and Yorkshire & Humber.  New Labour reversed this downward spiral. We devolved unprecedented powers away from the capital, and people forget that by 2005, unemployment in northern regions had gone down to the national average of 5%.

Sadly, unemployment between the regions has once again diverged, and the revolution in devolution has still yet to be extended to the English regions. What progress that was made has proven all too easy to unravel, as not enough has been done to address some of the deep-seated inequities in Britain’s economy and society, too dependent as it is on service-led, City of London-led growth at the expense of manufacturing and apprenticeships.

The consequence is that some British regions were more vulnerable to the recession than others, and were hit much harder. Eurostat figures show that GDP per capita fell across the UK from 2008-2011 as the recession kicked in. But this decline wasn’t experienced equally between British regions (see below): GDP per capita declined relatively less in London and the South East than in Northern Ireland, Yorkshire & Humber or the West Midlands.

A future government needs to launch Britain into a broad-based recovery that lifts up all reaches of the country, and re-balances the economy. The coalition, despite their pronouncements to the contrary, have palpably failed in this objective.

Many regions have lost out in the apparent “recovery.” Across the UK as a whole, Gross Value Added (GVA) per capita declined in 2008, but recovered every year thereafter – it was therefore on an upward trajectory by the time the coalition came to office. Sadly, this increase has been concentrated in some regions more than others (see below). 

The past five years, in a nutshell, have seen a re-assertion of the historic divides between regions. Nothing has been done to tackle the fundamental, deep-seated inequities which are underpinning this regional divide.

The existence of such stark regional inequity should concern the whole country. The North’s problems, Wales’s problems and the South West’s problems are not parochial, regional issues – they are Britain’s problems too.

Some parts of the country have depressed, hollowed-out economies. They still haven’t recovered from industrial abandonment under Thatcher, and still have yet to discover a new economic purpose. Demand for their housing is low, and the number of new households is rising well below the national average. The proportion of empty homes in local areas illustrate this shift: the North-East has by far the highest proportion of empty homes of any region of the UK.

In other parts of the country, the cost of living is spiralling out of control. Masses of British graduates flood in to chase work opportunities, and they join migrant workers from every corner of the world – all push up the prices of rented housing and increase over-crowding and pressures on transport. Many (but by no means all) parts of London have this problem: the quality of life satisfaction of our capital’s residents is consistently below that of any other part of the UK.   

These twin problems surely cannot be seen in isolation: they are two sides of the same coin, and we can’t tackle one without the other. Indeed, so many of the problems which progressives have set themselves in tackling are intimately connected with regional inequality. A future Labour government, to stand any chance of addressing the inequality between rich and poor people, has to address the inequality between rich and poor regions.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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