No, the UK shouldn’t accept it is London-centred

Intelligent, though unimaginative, piece today in the FT by its regular political columnist Janan Ganesh.

UK should accept it is London-centred‘, he says. (Oxford readers, by the way, can register on the FT and receive a premium subscription for free).

His argument, essentially, is that governments have wasted public money attempting to alleviate the North-South divide with little, if any, success. That’s money that should be spent, well, on London-stuff. Moreover the mission of injecting prosperity up the M6 “slander[s] London”. If Northerners don’t like the (widening) gulf, they should just move.

Like Ganesh, I don’t think the North is poor because London is affluent. If someone dropped a big bomb on the City tomorrow, we’d all be worse off.

As John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, said to me in an interview last year, “every country in the world would kill to have a London”. He’s surely right.

That quote appears in a piece I wrote for Isis, the long-running Oxford student magazine, entitled ‘Is London Leaving The Country Behind?

But as I wrote then there’s a problem when one city – albeit one that is a cash cow for the nation – becomes, to use Ganesh’s phrase, a “domineering metropolis”.

Reading it back now I still agree with why the North-South divide is a problem, but now, unlike then, I have a better idea about what I’d do to try and amend it.

I’m not at all convinced by High Speed 2, the £43 billion (assuming no cost over-runs) project to cut 40 minutes off the Manchester-London journey time. It will take decades to complete, the benefit calculations assume journeys are dead economic time (not true now; even less true in 2033) and it seems just as likely to funnel jobs southwards rather than northwards.

The argument for HS2 has always been somewhat patronising, namely that the only way to help the regions is to move them closer to London. I’m not against this in principle, of course, but it explains why (mostly Southern) politicians neglect HS2’s huge opportunity costs.

The money would be much better spent on infrastructure both within  Northern cities and between them. Travelling from one suburb of Manchester to another on the other side via public transport can take an hour and a half, at least. The equivalent journey in London, in my experience, would take less than an hour because the network is more extensive and services are faster and more frequent.

Similarly transport between Northern cities is onerous. I was amused by this stat today: it apparently takes longer to go from Manchester to Liverpool today, in 2013, than it did in 1883.

The distance from Manchester to Newcastle is 10 miles less than that between Manchester and London, but the fastest trains take more than half an hour longer to get there.

The logic of HS2 treats Northern urbanities as islands which can only be salvaged by plugging them into the South-East, but instead government policy should be focused at connected them to one another.

I also think that cities across the North would benefit enormously from more Borises, that is, more directly elected mayors with large mandates and large public profiles.

There’s no question that London’s big dollops of public investment – Crossrail most notably – are the result of a powerful City Hall lobby, especially when that lobby belongs to the same political party as the sitting Westminster government.

Most cities voted against directly elected mayoralties in recent referenda in May last year. That’s a real shame: the effect of having a charismatic, vocal Mancunian mayor on the television each night, writing newspaper columns and lobbying Westminster 24/7 would really benefit those voters who, sadly I think, succumbed to the short-sighted view that the last thing we need is more politicians on the public payroll.

So whilst accepting the failures – well documented by Ganesh – of previous and present attempts to redress regional economic inequalities, we shouldn’t give up. A combination of North-North infrastructure investment and direct democratic localism can, in time, really make a difference.

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