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Flying the flag for the north

While we always perceive northern England as ‘up north’ it’s actually the centre of Great Britain with Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire, recognised as the exact centre.

However, when it comes to the economic geography of Great Britain, it is far from central and economically lags behind the south. Therefore, I welcomed the Smith Institute inquiry ‘fair deal for the north’ published back in March, and support the recent launch of the Northern Economic Futures Commission – giving the north a much needed economic voice.

However, let’s not forget the real problem here, it’s not the north – it’s UK’s economic centralism. Thus, this shouldn’t be about just flying the flag for England’s north but about standing up against economic centralism and bringing about fundamental economic change and a new economic localism.

Of course, we must acknowledge the economic power of London and the City.  They are great assets for the UK and offer significant benefits to the UK’s economy. However, they should not be isolated from the problem, they are part of it.  Unless addressed, the north, south west or any ‘secondary’ region or nation of the UK, will be the poor relation in perpetuity and it will get worse.  They will drift off. Forget a north-south divide we will get a chasm, within which our communities will tumble.

The RDAs documented the economic problems of the north in forensic detail.  There were no surprises – poor infrastructure, lack of skills, lack of capital and poor levels of investment. However, in identifying these problems, they were perhaps guilty of seeing these as problems for the regions, and not enough as symptoms of UK’s economic centralism.

This economic centralism delivers, a narrow and skewed economic geography.  Crucially, this centralism has negative effects on the rest of the UK, not just the north. It has an effect on the economy of Hastings or Hamilton as much as Hartlepool or Hull.

Before the recession, as the financial sector boomed down south, much of the rest of Britain’s periphery, sought solace in public sector largesse, regeneration monies and hackneyed old phrases and notions such as a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’, or ‘trickle down’. But we were deluding ourselves.

The then overreliance on the UK finance industries for growth, served to justify more investment and financial industry friendly policy, reinforcing the City’s pre-eminence in power and influence over the UK state and triggering wider economic growth in London and the greater south east. The central economic bureaucracy that supported this continues today, levering international investment, attracting graduates, enticing companies, creating economic hotspots and rapid development, fuelling the justification for evermore public infrastructure investment in London and the south east.

So what do we need to do? It may sound like a cop out, but firstly we must reframe the debate. This is about the economic governance of the UK, not just the north.

We must stop identifying problems as ‘northern’ issues, and by thinking that failing economies, generational worklessness, place decline and poverty are something peculiar and ‘northern’. By making the case for a northern economic ’special case’, we are playing into the hands of the economic centralists and the powerful economic bureaucracy, who merely park the issue under ‘whingeing northerners’.

The government talks of a ‘radical decentralisation’ and a ‘power shift’ away from the big state to a big society, but this will falter unless economic centralism is tackled. So this reframe must have economic localism at the forefront and placed alongside and reflected back to government and its avowed decentralisation and war on bureaucracy.

Successive governments have allowed a skewed economic geography to flourish and many of us have been complicit in framing the north as a problem, leadings us to then advocate parochial solutions. The north isn’t the problem.  Economic centralism is.  Its time ‘up north’ became the UK’s centre- a centre for change across the UK.

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