How can we bridge the north-south divide?
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The relative differences in jobs, pay, health and many other factors between the North and South of England have been a recurring talking point in politics for decades. Where once the North could boast of being an industrial powerhouse, the decline of manufacturing and extractive industries from the late Seventies onwards, along with the rise of the City of London and financial services, has left many in the North feeling like the poorer and ignored neighbours to the wealthy South. The picture, of course, is complicated by the intersection of the north-south divide with other geographical divides, most notably between town and city, or urban and country.
In 2015, the Centre for Cities think tank reported that between 2004 and 2013, there were 12 jobs created in the South for every one created in the North, where real wages also fell by nine per cent. Other observers thought the picture painted in the report was too gloomy – with northern areas catching up in recent years in terms of job creation. But, however you cut it, there clearly are stark differences between many northern and southern areas.
The differences are clear in many other areas. On transport, the IPPR North think tank reported last year that from 2016 to 2017, spending in the capital rose by 11.4 per cent, but fell by 3.6 per cent in the north of England. It’s not merely a lack of government spending, either, but lower activity in the wider economy. One reflection of this is in the balance between public spending and tax revenues. Official figures show that spending outstrips tax revenues in every area of the UK apart from London and the south-east of England, which produce substantial surpluses. These deficits are particularly clear north and west of a line running roughly from Hull to Bristol. On health, a report published in June this year by Manchester University in conjunction with Sky News found that ‘between 2014 and 2016, an average of 1,177 more men aged between 25 and 44 died in the North than in the South each year’.
There have been numerous attempts to solve the north-south divide. Most recently, the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, much promoted by the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, aimed to boost jobs, industry and infrastructure, with much talk of improved railway connections between northern cities and HS2 to speed up connections to London. Many argue the wealthier parts of the south, booming from London’s role as a world financial centre, need to distribute more of that wealth to poorer regions.
Others argue that the issue is not so simple. Many areas in northern England, around Leeds, Manchester and Cheshire, for example, are relatively wealthy. Parts of London, the south-east and Cornwall are much poorer than the national average. Even among those who do believe that government has failed the North, some critics argue that the problems can’t be solved by relatively superficial initiatives like shifting the BBC to Salford and Channel 4 to Leeds. What’s more, at least in the case of the urban-rural divide, many differences will be as a result of people consciously choosing a different style or pace of life.
Does it make sense to talk about a north-south divide? What about a town-country one? Are these really problems that central government can solve – and, if so, how? Should there be greater support from the wealthy south-east, either directly or by moving jobs up north? Would it be better to devolve more power and influence to local and regional government rather than leave their future to Whitehall? Or should we focus on issues like poverty, transport, health and housing wherever they arise?