Bad Idea: Heading south

Strange timing: just as the new government announced it would limit migration to the UK, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, turned up in the Sunday Times to (quietly) recommend that those already living here move around in the hunt for jobs. "Sometimes, you just need to be able to move to work," he explained, instantly clarifying the situation.

The problem, said IDS, is that jobless people living in council houses risk finding themselves at the bottom of the housing list if they move for work - a huge disincentive to job hunting. The new proposals would allow them to skip the queue for accommodation in a new area, in theory improving their prospects.

So far, so reasonable. Giving people the chance to move is a good thing. But providing them with a place to live doesn't necessarily mean it's easy to go. One in three mothers relies on a grandparent for childcare - the kind of local infrastructure that can't be uprooted or easily re-created elsewhere. And in most two-adult households, both partners work if they can. So chasing a job for one partner may mean losing work for the other.

And that's assuming the government's plan can be carried out in the first place. There may well be more employment opportunities in the south-east, but - in part for that very reason - the region isn't exactly awash with spare social housing. Without major investment, the plan can't work unless people already living in the south are kicked out of their homes. (Which seems to be what IDS meant by suggesting that the "tons of elderly people living in houses they cannot run" - ie, large ones - could be asked to relocate. To where?)

Nobody thinks regenerating parts of the country in long-term decline would be easy. But there's no evidence it would be any harder than incentivising a mass exodus.

Among those to point out that moving the north of England to the south of England might present a few problems is David Cameron. But then, that was back in the days of detoxification. A little less than two years ago, Policy Exchange's Cities Unlimited report suggested that, as "there is no realistic prospect that our regeneration towns and cities can converge with London and the south-east", the solution was to expand London, Cambridge and Oxford, and encourage people to come and fill them up.

“This report is rubbish from start to finish," Cameron cheerfully declared at the time. "It certainly won't become Conservative policy." On the contrary: "Conservative policy is focused on the good work of continuing the regeneration resurgence of cities right across England, including the north of England."

Perhaps someone should have a quiet word with IDS.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals