It will take more than infrastructure spending to create a "northern global powerhouse". Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty
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Infrastructure spending isn’t enough, we need a radical shift of power away from London

City regions should be at the heart of future economic and social development, with powers and responsibilities devolved from Westminster.

There is an awakening interest in the regional economies and cities at present. After four years of austerity which have reinforced all of the inequalities that divide the south-east and the other English regions, it looks as though some spending on infra-structure may be heading north but it will take more than infrastructure spending alone to create a “northern global powerhouse”.

A major initiative to improve rail transport across the five key northern cities was announced last week in The One North Report, which, proposes a 125mph trans-pennine rail link and a faster link to Newcastle and Manchester airport. It is part of a 15 year plan for improving east-west transport links across the north. The cost of the rail improvements are around £15bn - roughly the same as Crossrail in London and George Osborne is likely to make this a “centrepiece” of his autumn statement which in turn forms part of the government’s proposals for a “northern global powerhouse”.

This may be cynical electioneering ahead of next year’s and it will take a much more comprehensive approach to regional economic planning to address the imbalances in in the English and the UK economies, let alone tackling the continued growth of inequality across society. Yes, we need economic development across the regions but we need strategies that can genuinely address inequality by moving power and economic investment away from Westminster and delivering economic development that meets aspirations for a fairer society that is concerned with equality and sustainability. For more on this see my essay in ‘Building Blocks for a New Economy’, out today.

It is interesting to look north to Scotland and the debate on Scottish Independence as a solution to the regional problems of England. In Scotland, the debate on Scottish Independence has brought forward a strong economic case for independence, arguing the importance of greater natural resources and strengths in education, innovation and ingenuity. They clearly, argue that a one-size fits all policy for economic development in the UK deprives Scotland of the economic levers that are necessary to set the economy on the right path to recovery. In England the patterns of centralised policy making continually reinforce the economic pull of the London and the South East and this deprives the regions of the necessary levers to deliver the economic and social aspirations of people in the regions. The case for different economic policies is a strong one but also is the argument for greater self-determination in social policy, developing economic policies that reflect the values of a fairer society in terms of education, health and equality.

In developing a new strategy for economic development we need to look to city regions as a main focus for economic development with powers and responsibilities devolved from Westminster that require them to place economic justice and sustainability at the heart of economic activity. This cannot be achieved without radical shift in power away from London and the creation of a new banking and investment infrastructure to support this shift.

Cities should be at the heart of future economic and social development. It is here that innovation and creativity thrive and where ideas will develop to create economic and social change.

Stuart Speeden is an independent equalities consultant. His essay on radical decentralisation is published by Compass today in Building blocks: for a new political economy and can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/1qVCH5X  

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle