“Taking back control” in the North

I was asked to read this report by IPPR. Apart from the title, which is now rather broken, it is worth a considered read.

The north is broken – anyone who lives here knows that it is a great place but it has problems.

The IPPR report itself has two problems

1     It is too ambitious

2     It is not ambitious enough

It is too ambitious in that it envisages a “north” that is coherent. The north has never been coherent – remember the “war of the roses”. A more recent example has been the squabbling over the HS2 and HS3 routes. Each local authority has taken a “me, me, me” approach to get the route through their district rather than saying “this is wrong, all HS2 does is reinforce the dominance of London, we don’t need it”. This is another way of saying that the current bunch of politicians in the north have no backbone and are quite incapable of working together for a common cause.

In truth, the IPPR report recognises this and talks about the norths subservience to central government (London) that the current political architecture creates. The IPPR solution is to have a “Council of the North”. I like the idea of this but I suspect that the Council would have difficulty deciding which day of the week it is. Also, the natural consequence of devolution is that it creates more politicians, more civil servants i.e more useless mouths.

Geography is another factor. There is a geographical divide – the Pennines. Of course there could be  trans-pennines tunnels between Leeds and Manchester or Sheffield and Manchester but all that provides is a city-centre to city centre link – which is not what is needed, or wanted (except by accountants and lawyers travelling between their city centre offices). That is an example of the poor “Transport for the North” thinking.

It is also totally impractical because, at present, there is no appetite for regional devolution from “the people”. Plans to have a north east assembly were abandoned due to lack of interest.

It is much simpler to get the existing system to work. Moving Parliament to Bradford would help and create a lot of jobs in the area. The Houses of Parliament could then be demolished rather than having to undergo a very expensive refurbishment. This would help make the UK less London centric.

The report is also not ambitious enough. The main reason for this is that it relies on “same old, same old” technology, especially for transport solutions. IPPRs proposed solution is for an enhanced transport network between major city centres in the north and supports the Transport for North initiative which is wrong-headed and supported by vested interests. Yes, we need better transport but that is door-to-door – most people want to live close to near where they work so transport policy cannot be decoupled from housing policy.

Look at what the Germans are doing on both. They are implementing integrated rail/road transport and using brownfield developments to build houses that are 30% bigger than UK new builds at a lower cost.

There is no point basing future strategy on old technology. Rail is 19th century century technology and whilst it has some role, future strategy needs to be built to intercept new technologies. Todays 100Mb/sec broadband and video conferencing is slow – it will seem pre-historic by 2025.

It also comes down to  money. Plus, some things need to be agreed at a national level (e.g. defence). Health? Health is already devoted to an extent (but that was possibly a mistake).

Education is also devolved to an extent e.g. university fees in Scotland, but with devolution comes different educational standards and more useless mouths that increase the UKs poor productivity.

The big problem is that the London gets far too big a share of investment in core services such as transport (£2600 per head v. £140 in the north) and education (twice as much as the north).

London could easily raise far more tax – there is not a great differential between the Council Tax raised on a 3 bedroomed house in Chelsea (£2100) and a 3 bedroomed house in Colne (£2200) – yes, that’s right. A large tax on empty properties and those owned by offshore companies is an obvious step.

Organisations like IPPR need to understand that technological change is accelerating, opening up new ways of working and there is no point basing the future on the past.

I say this as both a technologist and a student of history. Our shiny new aircraft carriers are another example of basing the future on the past. If they ever have to fight they will be sunk very quickly.




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