In recent years, England’s North-South divide has been a political hot topic in a way it hadn’t previously been for decades. Successive governments have tried to do something about it: first there was George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse—which, as it transpired, was rendered largely inert by his own spending cuts—and now there’s Boris Johnson’s much-vaunted ‘levelling-up agenda’, still awaiting more flesh to be put on its bones.
Since Johnson swept to an 80-seat House of Commons majority on the back of so many Northern rust-belt seats, there’s some pressure on him to reward them with meaningful investment. Whether this will amount to a serious programme to reduce Britain’s regional inequalities, among the widest in the global North, remains very doubtful. Nevertheless, we should probably be careful not to set the bar too low for them.
A new report from the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs and the Centre for Policy Studies—once at the intellectual vanguard of the Thatcherite counter-revolution—aims to rise to the challenge. ‘A Northern Big Bang’, co-authored by Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry and Nick King, former chief of staff to Sajid Javid, calls on Johnson to repay his Northern support by making the region the hub of the Green Industrial Revolution – the newly radicalism-averse Labour Party having allowed the Tories to take ownership of the idea.
To unleash ‘a torrent of private sector investment’ in the North, they propose a raft of deregulatory measures, particularly around planning. Applications purporting to create more than 100 permanent jobs in the North should be automatically approved, the authors argue, while larger projects proposing to invest at least £20m and create 250 or more permanent jobs should be subject to a new, fast-track planning process.
In this way, they would be allowed to sidestep ‘low-level council bodies which prioritise peace and quiet over the economic needs of the wider area.’ Berry and King also want to see a Northern ‘growth board’, composed of public and private sector figures, established to advise on high-priority projects. Local democratic deliberation is to be accorded a minimal role if any, lest vote-seeking councillors and NIMBY residents make a nuisance of themselves and inconvenience any thrusting entrepreneurs looking to invest.
The authors cite London’s Docklands and the Nissan plant in Sunderland as examples to emulate, as ‘most successful examples of regeneration in this country’. The lessons we can learn from them are perhaps not the ones Berry and King would like to draw; in particular, Canary Wharf was set up as an even more deregulated annex of the City of London, exacerbating local inequality and forcing many working-class residents out of east London. Nissan, meanwhile, was originally seeking easy access to the European single market.
Berry and King are keen to restrict public investment to a secondary role, insisting that its limits were ‘made abundantly clear’ during the New Labour years, leaving the North overly reliant on public sector job creation. But New Labour’s increased investment in the North only went part of the way to ameliorating the damage done during the Thatcher years, when much of the region’s industrial base was smashed to bits and the consequences—namely large-scale unemployment and enduring poverty—were simply shrugged at.
In the absence of a long-term regional industrial strategy, the modest gains of the New Labour years were always likely to be short-lived, and so it transpired when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government came to power in 2010. Tom Hazeldine notes in his history The Northern Question that the North was a prime target for cuts: almost as soon as the state had intervened (at great cost) to save the City from itself, the Tory Party and its media mouthpieces pivoted to demanding public spending cuts everywhere else.
It’s perverse to talk about hitting the limits of public investment so soon after a decade of austerity and wilful neglect. Indeed, Berry and King have little to say about this either, despite the fact that it did so much to exacerbate already cavernous regional inequalities. The burden of austerity was placed, deliberately and cynically, on those least able to bear it: the poorest communities, many of them in the North, suffered the most. Labour councils were likewise made to bear the brunt, losing a third of their spending power.
This gutting of local government has been ongoing for four decades, not because they obstructed industrial renewal through onerous planning requirements but because they were often too susceptible to working-class demands, doing things—whether it was building council houses, refusing to hike rents, or funding minority groups—that Tory governments didn’t want them to do. The last decade of cuts has badly weakened local democracy, so much so that it’s unclear what will be left of it a few years from now.
While Berry and King recognise that Britain is one of Europe’s most centralised polities, their proposals to marginalise local councils can only centralise power and responsibility even further. They acknowledge the lack of a democratic regional assembly in the North, but stop short of advocating one themselves, warning that ‘politicians, both local and national, have often been the cause of, not the solution to, the North’s problems.’ (Presumably they don’t mean Margaret Thatcher and George Osborne, but if they did, they’d have a point.)
What these proposals also risk—combining as they do weakened democratic oversight with closer public-private collaboration—is more of the corruption which has been such a prominent feature of the current crisis. It might be an increasingly inadequate safeguard, but local democracy (when it’s allowed to work) is one of the few ways we can uncover and expose such conflicts of interest. It also has an important role to play in securing a better local quality of life. Speculative investment, by contrast, is rarely conducive to its flourishing.
Berry and King, though they nod to it in their pamphlet’s title, are reticent about naming the ideology originally responsible for many of the problems they now seek to address: Thatcherism. They note that London and the South East have raced ahead of the North in recent decades, but are coy about how it fell so far behind in the first place. No wonder, as it’s an inconvenient history for the new, salt-of-the-earth Tory Party to have to recount, and one in which the Centre for Policy Studies in particular played an instrumental role.
It was the Thatcher government, in its zeal to smash the trade unions, that chose to lay waste to Northern industries. The objective was political as much as it was economic: to uproot the labour movement and cut it off from key bases of support, leaving behind a largely unorganised, more pliable, and politically quiescent workforce. In this, Thatcher succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. New Labour’s great, ultimately self-defeating betrayal was to treat the Thatcherite settlement as essentially sacrosanct.
The pandemic has forced something of a rethink in leading pro-capitalist circles. The new consensus, it seems, is that the recovery will—at least to a large extent—have to be driven by interventionist states for the foreseeable future. This isn’t necessarily a progressive development, and it has the potential to generate new forms of inequality and injustice. (The Tory ‘levelling-up agenda’ would, and no doubt will, make a convenient cover for pork-barrel politics in key constituencies.) The elite common sense does appear to be shifting, though.
Berry and King are behind the curve. They admit that the state has an important role, but their aversion to more direct intervention is telling, and familiar. They can see at least some of the effects but won’t own up to their cause, and so their proposed reforms cannot remedy them, let alone the climate crisis—though they may serve to line a few pockets, all the same. It just goes to show how, even now, some old Tory habits really do die hard.