Northern discomfort

DoreenMassey4x3.jpgDoreen Massey on building both resilience and opportunity in the north of England

On Thursday, in a debate led by myself, the House of Lords will reflect on a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (North) on ‘the State of the North’ in relation to equality of opportunity and sustainable development.

As those who know me will be aware, I’m from Lancashire – and therefore, a northerner. But my interest in this report is not just about where I come from but the fact that I care deeply about inequality and division – any sort of division – in society. I am aware that inequality and deprivation exist in parts of England other than the North, including areas of the South East – a relatively affluent and well connected region of our country. And some of my concerns will apply there also.

Much has been made of the ‘northern powerhouse’ in recent years. But this can only be powerful if the northern regions have real power – economic, political and in the public sector. It cannot simply be a façade. I welcome that the IPPR report suggests ways of contributing to this real power. Other reports meanwhile, on social mobility, housing, transport, health and education also contribute useful information and recommendations.

The CBI for example, says that wide geographic differences are at the root of much of the inequality in the UK and that, with regard to production, regional variation is vast. Many regions have fallen behind London and the South East. For example, more than half the adults in Wales, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and Northern Ireland have less than £100 in savings. The average weekly pay of workers in Blackpool (£333) is half that of the London Borough of Southwark (£639). Several - but not all – of the lowest hourly wages are in the North.

A previous IPPR (North) report in 2015 made confident projections of northern potential in relation to the economy, jobs growth attractiveness for foreign investment and educational improvements. This latest one however, suggests that the decision to leave the EU will affect the northern economy in terms of trade, and access to skilled labour and funding. It also notes that while growth may have been faster in the north, the current weakness of the pound could be disguising potential troubles.

The new report make three recommendations. First, that establishing a northern Brexit negotiating committee could enable the North to be heard and to build trade relationships with regions and nations within and beyond the EU. Second, that the government should adopt a place-based approach to industrial strategy with core principles of regional differentiation, coordinated investment and devolution. Third, that Local Enterprise Partnerships should conduct resilience audits that set out post-Brexit problems for their economies. Strategic responses should be developed and government should back this strategy.

It will also be important to address the issue of why so much discontent was expressed in the North during the referendum debates and in the subsequent vote. The places most at risk from leaving the EU but ones that could also benefit from new trade deals opted to leave. Only Manchester, Liverpool, Stockport and Trafford voted to remain. The Director of IPPR (North) has argued that Brexit negotiations should focus on the needs of those areas that most strongly voted to leave. England’s northern regions are more than three times as dependent as London on the EU.

As we prepare to leave the EU, the North has distinct economic assets that provide opportunities and threats. But the patchy development of combined authorities, metro mayors and devolution deals may be getting in the way of coherent responses to Brexit and other challenges. Ministers would do well to both heed the IPPR’s warning signs and consider its recommendations.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 11th January 2017

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