City regions aren't enough: it's time for a Council of the North

The Angel of the North, Gateshead. Image: Getty.

This time last year, IPPR North published a report which promoted the then rather unpopular idea that our smaller towns and cities were vital to the kind of economy the north needed to become.

It confronted some of the narrower conceptions of agglomeration and urban growth with emerging evidence of more complex city systems, and it made a case for a Northern Powerhouse that was far more inclusive than had hitherto been promulgated by the then chancellor. Now, with a big shove from Leave voters, thinking about “inclusive growth” is all the rage.

On Friday, IPPR North published a new report – Taking Back Control in the North – which champions another currently unpopular cause: regional governance.

There is a widely-held view that we shouldn’t talk about the structures and institutions of the so-called northern powerhouse. This view is promoted primarily by those who currently hold the reins: city leaders and chief executives, big businesses, government ministers and civil servants. But there is increasing evidence that the northern economy can only flourish when it has the institutional capacity to drive its own industrial strategy: England’s weak sub-national institutions lie at the heart of our severe regional imbalances.

The evidence is best exemplified in the work of Phil McCann, now at the University of Sheffield. To summarise the incredibly detailed analysis laid out in his most recent book, he makes three key points.

First, the UK’s weak long-term productivity is principally a result of the differential effects of globalisation on different parts of the country. There has been a very poor transition of economies outside London from their industrial pasts, while the benefits of globalisation have remained confined to London and its hinterland. For too long the former problem has been masked by the latter success.

As a result, “the UK economy is not only diverging but it is now disconnecting, decoupling and dislocating into two or possibly three quite separate economies”. London has become insulated and isolated from the wider economy, something likely to be exacerbated by the UK’s departure from the EU; while policy and practice has wrongly assumed that the success of the capital city brings aggregate benefits to the rest of the economy.

Second, explanations for poor productivity performance outside London have tended to be weak. There is little evidence of problems being associated with cities being undersized; educational differences are too small to explain the size of the productivity gap.

And if there is a brain-drain, then it is “tiny and also remarkably stable… Human capital and spatial sorting explanations provide few clues as to the UK’s interregional experiences”, as is the case with knowledge spillovers, financial and fiscal linkages too. McCann argues that most of the common diagnoses put forward concerning the North–South divide are actually the symptoms rather than causes of the problem.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially for the north, is the fundamental problem facing the UK economy. There are high levels of regional differentiation and inequality caused by the differential effects of global shocks; but there is insufficient regional autonomy in order to mobilise the appropriate local players, institutions, knowledge and capital in order to develop effective responses.

The core argument is that British regional policy and industrial strategy has stumbled on account of its failure to address issues of subnational governance and its poor awareness of the economic geography of the nation. This argument is all the more compelling when we consider that the two ‘economies’ of the UK which have demonstrated the greatest relative success are London and Scotland, where higher levels of subnational autonomy have enabled them to maximise their local economic advantages, in relation to financial and professional services in the City of London and as regards oil and gas in Scotland.

Brexit and a new approach to Industrial Strategy throw these issues into even sharper relief. With Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan holding regular, if contested, meetings with ministers and officials on Brexit, Northern council leaders wrote to the Prime Minister requesting similar meetings, only to be rebuffed some six months after their letter had been sent. And with devolution in the doldrums, the new industrial strategy green paper relegates any consideration of institutional capacity and leadership to pillar 10; even then, it seems preoccupied with strengthening local enterprise partnerships.

Important as they, are LEPS – even in the most promising city regions – are simply too small to punch their weight in the global economy. In another crucial insight from McCann’s data analysis, he reveals that the UK has a ‘regional’ more than an ‘urban’ problem – and that identifying the appropriate scale for tackling our economic imbalances is key for building institutional capacity.

IPPR North has long argued that the £300bn Northern economy – worth twice that of Scotland – with 15m people and 1m businesses is well-placed to compete with the most successful and similar-sized nations and states. It has a geography that can transcend the most obvious parochial and political rivalries. And, crucially, it provides a viable platform for fiscal devolution at scale. It simply needs stronger leadership and a Great North Plan.


So what then of the institutions that might be needed? Out proposal is for a Council of the North. Made up of the same 19 constituent members of the current Transport for the North board and with similar voting mechanisms it avoids the need for a “new layer of politicians”. It should also have a very clear and narrow remit to develop and implement a Northern industrial strategy acting as a go-between between government, combined authorities and other more functional agencies such as Transport for the North.

But any serious governance requires democratic legitimacy, particularly if it wants to have any role in relation to public finances. Again, transcending political challenges and looking to 21st century models of democratic innovation, we propose a Northern Citizens Assembly, its members chosen by lot, to hold the Council of the North to account and give it some broad direction.

The precise form either of these new institutions might take is worthy of much further debate but, unpopular as it may be, the time has come for England to face up to its governance problems. If we fail to do so all hopes for our new industrial strategy will fall flat.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North and tweets as @edcox_ippr.

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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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