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The ageing north needs a vision

It sounds like a new twist on that joke about how many electricians it takes to change a light bulb. How many universities does it take to tell us we’re all getting older?

The answer, it seems, is eight. The collective brains of eight of our top-notch northern institutions have released copious studies on the effects of demographic change on the north of England economy. In short, there are going to be more of us; more of us are going to be past retirement age; more of us will need long term care or have illnesses that limit our ability to work; and there will be fewer workers left in the workforce to support all these people.

Cheery stuff. No wonder the government’s preferred solution is for more of us to work longer. As universities minister David Willetts pointed out at the launch of the research last week, the pension age isn’t keeping up with our increases in life expectancy.

This is a far cry from those halcyon days when futurists used to tell us that technological advances would mean we’d all live lives of leisured prosperity. In the new economy, it seems, life for many will be nasty, brutish and long.

There’s a wealth of data in the universities’ research, which will be helpful to local enterprise partnerships and others in measuring the height of the mountain they have to climb. While there are hotspots of growth across the region (Manchester and Leeds in particular), skilled people are moving out and these hotspots may have to support increasingly deprived and disconnected hinterlands.

After years of regeneration initiatives, why is the north of England still such a poor relation in economic terms? One clue was given at the launch event by Alan Harding, director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance at Manchester University: while specific funding was targeted at deprived areas until last year, just about every other form of government investment has favoured London and the south-east.

University research funds, for example, gravitate towards the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Infrastructure projects overwhelmingly favour the south (think Crossrail and the Olympic investment, and the plans for high-speed rail, which if anything will entrench London’s status as the place where business is done).

One ray of hope the academics seized on is that a wave of entrepreneurial elders will be unleashed across the north of England. Armed with the accumulated wealth of the baby boomer generation, they’ll invest in new businesses that will create new jobs and opportunities.

Well, that may happen. Whether there will be enough ‘silver entrepreneurs’, with enough ready capital and enough disposable income, to make a difference across the region, is questionable. How many will readily risk their pensions to start new ventures is even more questionable.

It’s suggested, too, that there will be a  boom for housebuilders as more of us need homes we can stay in for longer, and big new markets in care technologies. This may be the case – but it raises the spectre of growing inequalities between those who can afford the smart homes and healthcare gizmos, and those who can’t. It’s hard to imagine councils footing the bill for state-of-the-art care homes.

All of which pushes to the fore the question about what kind of economy and society we want. The think tank IPPR North has set up a Northern Economic Futures Commission which will try to find some answers, and I posted some optimistic pointers to the kind of vision it needs to develop a couple of months ago.

We face some stark choices, and for all the government’s talk of rebalancing the economy, there’s little evidence of coherent policy. Will the north become a place where public spending provides an even more minimal safety net for the have-nots while a shrinking group of the well-off live the life of Riley? Or will we start to behave as if we really mean all that rhetoric about fairness and begin to build a diverse, inventive economy where everyone has a role?

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