Here’s how Britain can radically decentralise its economy

Can we just blame this lot? The Bank of England. Image: Getty.

A “rigged” system, the “left behind” and the need to “level” the prospects of UK regions are not phrases you typical hear in the Tory lexicon – but the Conservative Party leadership contest has finally forced the candidates to think about tackling Britain’s economic divide. However, neither has found a way to tackle economy’s structural flaws.

The financial crisis and era of austerity may have magnified these structural problems, but the problems predate both. The UK’s economic performance, measured in terms of labour productivity, has been diverging from international peers and between UK regions for decades. The average British worker is now almost a fifth less productive than the average worker from the G7 group of advanced economies. UK workers also reside in a country that is the most regionally unequal in Europe.

Vague calls for billions to be spent on infrastructure by some candidates at least recognise this fact, but this policy addresses only one part of the UK’s economic muddle. Other issues, such as the UK’s low levels of R&D spending, weak diffusion of best practice across firms, pervasive skills mismatch, shackled local government, credit constrained SMEs, and myopic corporate governance are still as relevant today as they were at the time of the last leadership contest.

These issues cannot be addressed by one ‘silver bullet’ policy. However, there is a unifying theme: a concentration of political and economic decision-making in only a few regions, firms and institutions.

Framed in this way, the solution is simple: a coordinated effort to decentralise Britain.

Plans to decentralise have been proposed before: just ask Michael Heseltine, a previous failed challenger for the Tory mantle. However, these decentralisation plans have been limited in scale and ambition.

Decentralisation must be broader than a policy proposal. It has to become a governing philosophy that guides all policy making. That is the essence of my team’s joint-winning entry for this year’s IPPR Economics Prize.

Applying this philosophy to local government would mean policies that decentralise economic activity and political governance, empowering local people and reducing local business costs. A policy such as mobility funding, which helps households and businesses relocate to new regions, is one such policy within this framework that can encourage a rebalancing of growth.


A reversal of the UK’s regional inequalities will also improve social cohesion, re-legitimise capitalism, and guard against extreme alternatives that are destructive in the long-term.

Decentralisation can also be applied to the private sector. The wide disparity in productivity between the UK’s firms can be addressed by reforming intellectual property law, adopting a system of compulsory patent licensing and incentivising collaboration between firms. Decentralising firm-level decision-making can also reverse the culture of short-term profit extraction by ensuring that the views of employees and local communities are considered in corporate boardrooms.

The financial sector in particular will serve the economy better if it is more local and community-minded. For example, we propose establishing a network of community banks that will be more responsive to the needs of credit-constrained firms and less vulnerable to global financial shocks.

All of these policies and the many more proposed in our winning report should combine as part of a ‘big push’ that can truly achieve inclusive prosperity.

Crucially, a blueprint for decentralisation will only transform the UK economy if it is adopted wholesale. This requires clear strategic leadership from Westminster, especially since implementation will be a long-term project that may straddle more than one parliament. In short, the next Prime Minister must resist the piecemeal efforts of the past and seize the opportunity to build a country that is more prosperous, less economically divided and less disconnected from decisions over its future.

Farooq Sabri was joint winner of the IPPR Economics Prize. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.