Little respite for fly-over Britain
PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 January 2019
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Brexit will do nothing for the overlooked parts of the UK, says JOHN KAMPFNER. Instead, it will hurt them the most.
In late summer 2016 I was in St Andrew’s House, the headquarters of the Scottish government. I was small-talking with a cabinet member who had asked me if I had taken the train or plane up from London to Edinburgh.
I had flown, I said, expecting an eco-admonition. Instead the minister chuckled. “Perhaps we should build an air bridge.” Gallows humour indeed. A bit like folk from New York and LA talking about ‘fly-over country’, denoting the rednecks in between the coasts who had voted for Trump.
London versus the rest is a familiar line of political combat that both sides have rehearsed ad infinitum since the EU referendum. It is part true, part mistaken.
In my previous job, running the umbrella body for the UK’s creative industries, I made a point of never spending every day in any one week at our London office. I lost count of the number of train journeys I took to Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff and all the other tier one cities – plus the odd flight to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
By the end, I think I could navigate all the city centres without a map. Big deal, you might say: yet I wonder how many Londoners really do get out to the other British cities (many would find Paris or Barcelona more familiar).
The reverse journey is done all the time. CEOs from Newcastle are all too familiar with the capital. They have to come, because it is there that the power resides. Not vice versa, apart from the odd foray, ‘to show willing’.
Getting to and from London is rarely a problem. Getting between cities, particularly in the north, is invariably a nightmare. You could walk from Liverpool to Hull as quickly as the cattle trucks masquerading as trains (I exaggerate, slightly). Compare that with journeys from London to the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the government’s plans to connect them, via Milton Keynes, as part of a tech-science research hub.
The lack of infrastructure and investment in the north has been much pronounced on. The coalition government of 2010-2015 made it one of its big themes, with George Osborne (he of the leafy Cheshire constituency) its key driver. The Northern Powerhouse idea has, thanks to the preoccupations caused by Brexit and the demise of the Cameron administration, since withered on the vine.
The one legacy that has outlasted it is the advent of Metro Mayors. Figures such as Andy Burnham (Labour, Manchester) and Andy Street (Conservative, Birmingham) have become significant players, in a way that their equivalents in the United States and Germany have done for years.
Manchester is an example of what can be achieved with the right mix of public and private interventions. The area now has a critical mass big and attractive enough to entice a global workforce. Media City, on the outskirts of Salford, was driven by government, with the BBC at the helm.
Some in the north resent its success, seeing it as just a second monolith, like London, sucking in the talent from other places. That, in my view, is a hard argument to sustain and a bit of distraction. No country can thrive without major centres. Now Greater Manchester/Salford is Europe’s second largest centre for audio-visual (after London) and for other segments of the knowledge economy. At least it was, before Brexit started making the UK a less welcoming place to live and work.
Here lies the reason why the London versus the rest proposition does not tell the full story. The Brexit divide is less about one city or region, more about the culture divide between metropolitan Britain and the smaller towns and villages. The same story is being told pretty much everywhere in the western world, a similar set of resentments manifested in different protest votes.
All the big cities (with the exception of Birmingham, which is counted as a single area, taking in the outlying towns) voted to remain. Mindsets and lifestyles among flat white-drinking, hipster, shared office space urbanistas is pretty much indistinguishable, wherever you are in the world.
The bigger challenge is their relationship with the ‘other’. For example, Cardiff, with its gleaming bay area and tech hubs, voted impressively to Remain, whereas the rest of Wales opted angrily to Leave.
In October 2016 I was invited by the CEO of the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, Roddy Gauld, to address the North West Development Network of cultural institutions. You should get out more, he quipped. I said I thought I had a pretty good record. Wasn’t he always bumping into me at events in Manchester? Yes, that’s my point, he said. Manchester is in a different world. It is 17 minutes, to be precise, by train from Manchester Victoria station to Bolton (according to the timetable, which admittedly never works), but economically it is in a different world.
One of the great paradoxes of the Brexit mess is that the areas which voted to leave are the ones which will suffer most.
“Brexit is likely to exacerbate the UK’s current inter-regional inequalities, which are already very high by international standards,” noted the research organisation, UK in a Changing Europe, only last month, in a report entitled The economic impact of Brexit on the UK, its regions, its cities and its sectors. It added: “This conclusion holds largely irrespective of the eventual form of Brexit.”
A number of other reports over the past year have highlighted the particular links, and therefore dependency and vulnerability, of many of the UK’s regions, with the European Union. Whereas London’s is predominantly a service-based economy, the Midlands is based in advanced engineering, the north east in automotive.
The British government, in its negotiations with Brussels, only went through the motions of supporting the geographical spread of the economy. Even though Brexit was supposed to address the concerns of voters in the regions, the word ‘regional’ appears only twice in the huge 585-page EU Withdrawal Agreement.
EU regional development and structural funds are supposed to be replaced by a UK-specific ‘shared prosperity fund’, but few people are anticipating that the financing lost in the various European schemes will be matched in full by the Treasury in Whitehall.
Cash-strapped local authorities will be expected to pitch in. Regional development agencies were replaced by much weaker institutions, Local Enterprise Partnerships, with no budget. Watch the money dry up even more.
“The reality of Brexit means people are looking at what’s coming next year with new eyes. If we’re not careful, there could be a sense of loss of confidence in the regional economy,” Burnham told a meeting of mayors and metro mayors in Bristol recently. He urged central government to give additional powers to the cities and regions, “freeing cities up to punch their way and make their own way, take control of their destiny”.
Even if further devolution does occur, both financially and politically the regions are a long way from having the muscle to tackle with problems that are exacerbated by Brexit. A report by the Local Government Association last July said Brexit was creating a “perfect storm” for rural and semi- rural communities, with unaffordable homes, poor connectivity, skills gaps and health inequalities threatening the future success and prosperity of those areas.
A second paradox is at play. Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the world, comparable most to France where so much political and economic clout begins and ends in Paris. If you lived in Munich or Chicago or Milan or Melbourne, you would still count yourself as a global city.
The EU was one means of solving these problems, with its focus on a Europe of the regions, pushing not just investment to the regions, but political power and cultural pride and distinctiveness too.
Brexit, if it is to happen, and whatever form it takes, will compound the disadvantage of the UK’s small towns and its regions.
That is an inconvenient truth that those MPs who purport to be representing their leave-voting constituents seek to hide.