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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.