England urgently needs a plan to devolve power to all corners of the country – including the capital

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

The so-called “North-South divide” is in the spotlight like never before. The North’s newspapers have banded together to demand central government takes action. Three years on, the shockwaves of Brexit might just be forcing us to look at our long-standing regional divide more clearly. But who will take action to address the UK’s regional divide – the worst in the developed world?

People living in England’s North, Midlands, South West and the other nations of the UK are right to be angry: 44 per cent of the net new jobs created since 2010 have been in London and the South East, despite this being home to only 27 per cent of the population. This gives real substance to a pervasive feeling that the country is being run by out-of-touch people in the capital with little regard for other communities.

But let’s not pretend that the current situation actually benefits most Londoners either. The capital’s vast investment in transport infrastructure actually hikes property prices; the financial and professional services sectors it specialises in can be highly exclusive; and its economic growth is often extracted from Londoners’ pockets through rent and corporate profits.

There is no doubt that London, taken as a region, gets favoured by central government. But who within that region benefits? Not the vast majority of the people who live there: Londoners experience the highest rates of poverty and inequality of both wealth and income.


This is the reality of the North-South divide. In different ways, all our regional economies are generating poverty and inequality. None of our regional economies are working in the interests of the majority of people living there, and there is common cause across our country in working to address this problem.

So why is the UK so imbalanced when other similar countries aren’t? It’s true to say that France is dominated by Paris; Germany is divided east to west, and Italy from north to south. But the UK is more regionally unequal than even these countries.

What these other countries have – and what the UK conspicuously lacks – is powerful regional and local government. In the UK alone, central government has exercised almost exclusive power over our regional economies: only 6 per cent of tax is raised outside of central government. In France the figure is 20 per cent; in Germany, 52 per cent. These countries’ regional and local authorities spend more than twice as much on economic development as a per cent of GDP compared to the UK regions. The result is that regions which are otherwise similar to the North are more prosperous – like Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia for example.

That’s why policy makers must stop pretending that it’s particularly difficult to set up new devolved institutions and support their development across England. Sub-regions, such as combined authorities, must remain the building blocks of devolution. But there are specific areas of policy – transport, trade and investment, and innovation for example – where pan-regional collaborations can support a more co-ordinated approach to strategic decision making. Initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine can, in time, help to formalise these collaborations into new institutions.  

For IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice (CEJ) we sketched out what this could look like, proposing four regions as a starting point for an England-wide conversation about regional governance.

 

Potential geographies for regional policy in England. Image: IPPR North.

But devolution can’t solve this problem alone: there is no escaping the fact that we will also need to invest more money in the regions, and this will need to be paid for. But again, there are practical ways of doing so. As we at IPPR North have previously recommended, we should look at the German “solidarity surcharge”, which raised €18 billion in 2017 and has been used to rectify Germany’s East-West regional inequality since reunification. It would raise a similar amount in this country – and would go a long way toward addressing our underinvestment in infrastructure and R&D as well as public health and education.

These are proposals that we are happy to see the UK2070 Commission have also recommended in their recent report highlighting regional inequality.

The UK’s regional divide is now one of the most corrosive problems our country faces, and neither our capital nor our regions can sustain the current situation. The government, and the opposition, need to stop pretending that their current proposals are up to this challenge and develop a much more radical programme of devolution and investment.

The solutions are there for the taking – by the plethora of Tory leadership candidates or by the Labour front bench. But who will take the opportunity to address one of our most severe injustices?

Luke Raikes is a senior research fellow at the think tank IPPR North. He tweets @lukeraikes.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.