Comment: This government just doesn’t understand the North

Following the appointment of Dr Tim Leunig, Kevin Meagher writes about how the coalition government - Lib Dems as well as Tories - don't understand the North.


David Laws has not been the only controversial appointment to the Department of Education following the reshuffle. The appointment of Dr Tim Leunig as his special adviser has drawn almost as much attention as the formerly disgraced Laws.

As Left Foot Forward’s Regressive of the Week last week, Dr Leunig’s reputation precedes him. A reader in economic history at the London School of Economics, he is best known as co-author of the “Cities Unlimited” report (pdf) for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange five years ago which argued many northern towns and cities had “failed” economically and were in effect “beyond revival”.

At the time David Cameron reacted by disowning the report’s main remedy – that people in the North should simply move South to pumped-up conurbations around Oxford and Cambridge – as “insane”.

Last week, Labour MP for Gateshead Sharon Hodgson MP said Leunig’s appointment was “a slap in the face for millions” who live in the north. Indeed, Nick Clegg also weighed in, describing Leunig’s views on northern cities as “utterly and totally wrong”.

But it is not fair to heap all the blame on Leunig. He is merely the corporeal embodiment of the fact this government just doesn’t understand the north. And the north doesn’t much care for it either, it seems. The Conservatives now face an electoral desert without a single councillor or MP in many northern cities. County council elections will see the problem accentuated next May as Tory shires turn red.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s escapades in London may amuse those inside the M25, but the farther away from the capital you travel the less people are laughing.

A recent YouGov survey (pdf) asked the public which other leading Tory should replace David Cameron if he were to step down. Boris may have been out in front with 24 per cent of the vote; however this figure was actually 29 per cent in London, falling to just 23 per cent across the north of England, before dropping to 18 per cent in Scotland.

But the Tories need to perform better in the north to have any hope of winning a majority at the next general election. Similarly, the Lib Dems desperately need to retain their northern foothold.

Yet The Economist recently argued geographic inequalities are now such that:

“Economically, socially and politically, the north is becoming another country.”

Between 1997 and 2010 the gross value-added (GVA) measure of output grew by 61 per cent in the three northern regions; in London and the South East, however, it shot up by 92 per cent.

This government’s response? Abolish regional development agencies – which were charged with trying to narrow those disparities – and slash regeneration spending by two thirds. Over a similar period (1998 to 2007), public sector spending accounted for 64 per cent of the jobs growth in the north but only 38 per cent in the south.

Therefore continued public spending cuts – combined with the threat of regionalised public sector pay – will further embed these inequalities, reducing demand in local economies across the north and signalling a precipitous brain drain to better paying southern England.

In this respect, perhaps Dr Leunig’s much maligned report is a fair reflection of government policy after all?

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