If the North of England is to move on from its industrial past and fully contribute to national prosperity, it needs a more level playing field
Yesterday the government revealed its future rail investment plans.
The £9.4 billion package of investment in the railways in England and Wales is sorely needed and a welcome development.
The government is stressing the plans benefit the whole country and tackle what ministers acknowledged as chronic underinvestment in the transport infrastructure of the North.
The Census data also released yesterday, illustrates the growing North-South divide.
There is no doubt the chronic underinvestment in the North’s infrastructure has held it back.
London and the South East were broadly the same size as the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber in 1991 – 14.4 million and 14.3 million respectively. The population in the North, however, dipped in the 1990s before rising again in the 2000s, albeit at a slower rate than London and South East.
The steady growth of London and the South East resulted in their population reaching 16.8 million by 2011, an increase of 17% over the two decades. By comparison, the North’s population grew by just 4% over the same period to 14.9 million. The North East’s population today is in fact roughly the same size at in was in 1991.
This is not unconnected to employment prospects in many areas of the North.
If we are to encourage talented people to stay in the North and businesses to invest there, we have to ensure that infrastructure spending is not totally skewed towards the South.
Yesterday’s rail investment plans are encouragingly spread across the country but many focus on connections in and out of London.
These ‘capital connections’ can be a double-edged sword for regional economic development, sucking talent and investment into the capital, rather than dispersing it outwards.
Likewise, not electrifying more rail routes in the North East is a missed opportunity that will leave the region increasingly isolated from the burgeoning Manchester-Leeds corridor.
Since the demise of the RDAs, inward investment projects secured in the Northern regions have fallen by one third whilst in London and the South East they have increased by a similar proportion.
Yesterday’s census figures show that the North has room to grow and back up the growing body of evidence that suggests the UK’s biggest cities outside London offer the greatest potential for economic growth as set out in IPPR North’s Northern Economic Futures Commission’s Interim report.
The myth of us living in an overcrowded small island dissipates once you step outside London. London may well have an average population density of 5,200 people per square kilometre but outside London the average figure for England and Wales is just 321.
The government must decide whether rebalancing is more than just rhetoric, and if they are prepared to fund localism, rather than simply encouraging localities to compete with one another.
If the North of England is to move on from its industrial past and fully contribute to national prosperity, it needs a more level playing field.