UK Politics

Solving Britain’s North-South divide needs much more than improved road and rail

BY Chris Blackhurst | tweet c_blackhurst   /  27 January 2020

At a recent party in Cheshire, the talk was of the Tory election victory and the coming profits bonanza. In this affluent part of the world, south of Manchester, the business community is looking forward to being at the centre of a boom, excited at the prospect of giant construction projects, property developments and a rush of cash.

They’re right to be. Whether HS2, the proposed high speed rail link between the North and London, is built in its present guise or not, investment is coming. There will still be a new rail scheme linking the region’s major cities, it’s quite likely that the roads network will be improved. The money is going to pour in. The Northern Powerhouse is going to become reality.

As well it should. The Tory breaching of the “red wall” of Labour seats in the North in the general election can be explained by several factors coming together. Wishing to Get Brexit Done. Antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn, regarded as an out-of-touch Londoner more interested in promoting distant foreign causes than those closer to home, incapable or not bothered enough to stamp out anti-semitism in his own ranks, unable to articulate a clear line on exiting the EU, and making ill-thought through promises. Affection and regard for Boris Johnson, who, despite his southern toff credentials and plummy voice, struck a chord among working-class Northerners who see him as a patriot, prepared to try, an officer with a good heart.

They saw, too, in Johnson, someone who professed to listen and appeared to get it, as they vented their frustrations and anger. And this was the underlying reason for the Northern revolt: pent-up dismay at decades of no progress, being forgotten, having to endure patronising lip-service and empty rhetoric from Westminster from successive governments, and locally, from platitudinous councils, many of them Labour.

If Johnson wants to shore up his popularity, he has to deliver on their faith. More than that, however, if he wants to make a real difference as Prime Minister, he has to solve a major problem at the heart of our national life. This goes beyond winning him votes, although they will duly arrive. Get this right and it will make him a true visionary. Part of his legacy, then, is to go some way towards eradicating the North-South divide; to yes, turn the North blue, but also to begin to secure equality. Do that, and he could assist markedly in the achievement of what a Tory Cabinet minister once described to me as “the greatest social problem facing our country – how to regenerate the post-industrial North.”

But that requires going much deeper than adding miles of railway lines and tarmac.

When Northerners speak of abandonment, and I say this as one myself, they are often met with Southern bafflement. After all, the old, stinking factories and chimneys have gone; much of the once grimy urban landscape is more pleasant than it ever was; the desolate city centres have been revitalised; the much-maligned transport connections are actually better than they were; standards have risen; heavens, the North now has some of the best restaurants in Britain.

It’s true the mills and manufacturing plants have vanished. What, actually, though has replaced them? Usually a so-called “enterprise park”, often an excuse for sculpted grass mounds, low-slung modernist buildings with flagpoles, always flagpoles, and a reason for transferring one car dealership from another part of town – and critically, not a meaningful new job or career path in sight. Either that or they’ve become a “heritage centre”, complete with actors posing as workers. Or they’re a “shopping village”, full of brands offloading their unwanted lines.

What is not evident is the future. Not in the global marketplace. While the South has roared ahead, challenging, perhaps even overcoming, New York in financial services, opening world-class science parks, forging an international reputation for creative industries and tech, the North has lagged. It’s frozen, stuck, with one foot firmly in the past, unable to extricate itself and to push forward.

Some of that, it’s true, is the result of creaking infrastructure. But not all. It’s also due to lack of aspiration, absence of opportunity, and a dearth of relevant expertise and skills. We can conjure up statistics galore as to how the North is badly-off compared to the South where transport and communications are concerned. But consider this one: in the North, only 34% of disadvantaged children get five good GCSEs at school, compared to 48% in London.

This is what Johnson needs to address, and much more. For the North to thrive there must be business clusters of excellence, able to compete on the world commercial stage; jobs and careers that go beyond the mundane, surpassing the call centres, and offering real prospects. Digital has to be to the fore, and teachers have to equip their pupils with the tools to thrive in the new age.

The brain drain has to be reversed, the civil service has to move north, out of London, and not just the back room jobs but all the jobs, leaders included. The private sector, too, has to be incentivised to relocate. Again, it can’t be the rehoming of satellite operations – the North has long and bitter experience of those, of their arrival and their subsequent closing – but the headquarters.

The people have spoken, they’re looking to Johnson for permanent transformation. But to do that, he must not stop at railways and roads.


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