There are 158 constituencies in the North of England. Just 43 of them returned a Conservative MP at the last general election. By way of comparison, Labour took just ten of the 197 constituencies in the South of England outside London. We could comfort ourselves with the thought that Labour has the bigger problem, but complacency won’t win us a majority. Nor is national unity best served by the polarisation of the electoral map. Of course, in any democracy, there will geographical variations in support for different parties – but few countries are as starkly polarised as our own.
It’s therefore time to take the North-South divide seriously. And to do so we need a better understanding of the nature of that divide. For instance, this is much more than a matter of physical distance from Westminster – after all, you can travel hundreds of miles from Big Ben and still find yourself in true-blue territory. We also need to look past differences in the socio-economic make-up of North and South. Though these do exist, it’s also the case that if you compare people from the same backgrounds, Northern voters are less likely than their Southern counterpart to support Conservative candidates.
Clearly, there’s something else going on – a lot of things, in fact; but for me the biggest single factor that distinguishes the North from the South is cities. If you look at where people actually live, the North is much more urban place than the South. Of a total Northern population of 13.5 million people, 8.5 million – almost three-fifths – live in the metropolitan counties of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. Other heavily urban areas such as Hull and my native Teesside are home to much of the other two-fifths.
Of course, the South has cities too. But leaving London aside, they’re fewer in number and generally smaller in size. Of England’s eight ‘Core Cities’ (the largest cities beyond the capital), five are in the North, two in the Midlands and only one (Bristol) in the South.
And if one doesn’t leave London aside? Well, in many ways, this only increases the contrast between North and South. London is in a category of its own – an order of magnitude bigger than any other city in Britain, a world city of enormous economic, political and cultural importance. So while the North is a region of cities, the South is a region of smaller communities centred on a single metropolis in which wealth and power is concentrated to an extraordinary degree.
In my view, there is no serious analysis of the North-South divide that doesn’t begin with this vast difference in economic geography.
As a capital without a counterweight, London’s sheer size helps explain how Britain became one of the most centralised countries in the free world. At its height, the industrial revolution provided the North – and its growing cities – with the dynamism they needed to escape London’s gravitational pull. But the technological and political products of that revolution gave Whitehall the means and the justification required to exert its control to an ever-greater degree.
There are those who say that cities that were once in the right place to exploit the
opportunities of industrialisation, are now in the wrong place in the era of globalisation. But this utterly misses the point. The greatest strength of
cities is their ability to innovate. By providing the
greatest possible concentration of people and institutions, cities are where
new ideas have the best chance of taking wing. Furthermore when it comes to
applying new ideas to their own governance, cities – as spatially coherent,
living communities – are ideally placed to know their own strengths and
weaknesses and to adapt accordingly to changing economic conditions.
This is why over-centralisation has been such
a disaster for urban Britain. Over-mighty and over-extended, central government
has, for decades, robbed our cities of their trump card: their ability to do
things differently. This has been bad for the country as a whole, but
particularly bad for the North – being a region characterised by its distinct
and diverse cities. Each of these communities should have been empowered
to plot its own course to the post-industrial future, but they were instead
subject to the uniform prescriptions of a distant bureaucracy.
It is this deliberate policy of
disempowerment, and not geographical determinism, that explains the economic
decline of the North.
In 2012, the Government published its Unlocking
Growth in Cities report which compared England’s eight core cities
(the largest cities outside London) with their equivalents in Germany, France
and Italy. In Germany all eight of the biggest cities outside Berlin
outperformed the national average in terms of GDP per capita. The same was true
of all but two of the Italian core cities. In France, three of the eight
outperformed the national average, while none fell significantly below it.
Moreover, it wasn’t only GDP that followed this pattern, it could also be seen
in respect to the percentage of the workforce with higher qualification and
rates of innovation (as measured by patent applications).
Patterns like this don’t form themselves
over night. They are the result of decisions taken over a century of ever
increasing centralisation. In more recent decades, there have been signs of
economic renewal in our great cities, which are especially visible in the
regeneration of their city centres. But huge reserves of untapped potential
remain. The progress that had been made since the 1980s is only the start of
what is both possible and necessary.
Our cities have already proved that they
can make good use of whatever freedoms that national governments have granted
to them. But halting, fitful experiments in localism are not enough. Only a
sustained and expanding policy of radical decentralisation will do.
There need to be qualitative differences in
the process of reform too: The irony of previous attempts at decentralisation
is that they have been highly centralised in nature – Whitehall has decided
which resources and responsible to devolve, making a one-size-fits-all offer to
each community on a take-it-or-leave it basis.
The City Deals programme, which I’m
responsible for as Cities Minister, takes a completely different approach. Each
deal is bespoke, not off-the-peg. It is agreed in a two-way negotiation between
central government and the city in question. Each community has a right of initiative – to propose what it wants in the deal. And rather than the city
having to show why it should have this or that item in the deal, the burden of proof – in the event of a disagreement – is on Ministers to show why it
The first wave of City Deals have already
been agreed with the core cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. The second wave, involving
twenty additional urban areas, is currently in progress. With the publication
of Lord Heseltine’s landmark report on promoting growth in local economies
– No stone unturned – decentralisation will move to an even higher
From the moment that this Government took
office and set about dismantling the apparatus of top-down state control, we
made it clear that each decentralising reform represented a point of departure
not a destination. To remove a central control, to devolve a decision-making power doesn’t just serve a purpose in itself, it lays the foundation for further decentralisation – by reducing dependency on the centre, building up
local capacity and inspiring further city-led initiatives.
I believe that this dynamic process of
change will produce positive economic results for our cities long before any
shift in party political allegiances. However, it is pretty clear to me that
the old order of disempowered Northern cities, prevented from shaping their own
futures, was very much to the advantage of our opponents.
All the time the main question is "what can
the Government do for our cities?" then the party of tax, borrow and spend will
have the upper hand. But if we can change the question to "what can this
city do for itself?", then many good things are sure to follow.