“Calling an organisation the “UK 2070 Commission” is not without its risks. Who cares what happens that far out?
But that, in a sense, is the point. The commission, set up to investigate Britain’s “marked regional inequalities”, publishes its first report today. And, as its chairman Lord Kerslake puts it: “If you want to understand what happens in economics, you need to look 50 years back and 50 years out.” Indeed, as the commission notes: “The reference to 2070 is an explicit recognition that the timescales for successful city and regional development are often very long, in contrast to the short-termism of political cycles.”
A Brexit-addled government nicely illustrates that — not that it’ll have been any surprise to Lord Kerslake, the ex-head of the home civil service. And in these distracted times, the report is doubly welcome. It kills the myth that inequality is not on the rise and helps to explain Brexit — or at least the disparity between Remainer London and the Brexiteer regions.
The report finds London “de-coupling from the rest of the UK”. And to nobody’s benefit. Research from Sheffield University professor Philip McCann finds the “UK is interregionally more unequal” than 28 of the 30 advanced OECD countries, the exceptions being Ireland and Slovakia.
Productivity in the capital is 50 per cent higher than the rest of the UK. Indeed, similar growth between 1992 and 2015 from cities outside London would have added at least “£120 billion to the national economy”. And, on present trends, half of the UK’s future jobs growth will be in London and the South East, which accounts for only 37 per cent of the population.
The effects show up everywhere. Healthy life expectancy in the UK’s poorest regions is “19 years lower”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found in 2016 that dealing with the effects of poverty costs the UK £78 billion a year. And, even then, poor is a relative term. The children’s commissioner for England found that “a child who is poor enough for free school meals in Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs, is still three times more likely to go on to university than an equally poor child in Hartlepool”.
No one wins from such imbalances. People and businesses in the North “miss out on the benefits of growth” — forcing more spending on benefits. But those in “overheating” London and the South East find “increasing pressures on living costs and resources”, so reducing “quality of life”. That forces spending on pricey infrastructure, exacerbating the imbalances. Hence Crossrail, a phase-one HS2 skewed to the capital and an environmentally damaging third Heathrow runway.
So, what to do? Well, here the commission suggests a mix of regional devolution and German-style national planning. It points to the eye-popping €1.5 trillion spent post-unification to help to bring east Germany up to speed with the west. For Britain, it proposes an extra £10 billion spend annually for the next 25 years: a fabulous sum equating to 0.5 per cent of GDP. Lord Kerslake says it’s for government to decide whether it would come from borrowings, tax or such things as levies on uplifts in property values.
Yet he reckons “higher regional growth rates would over time offset this cost”. He emphasises, too, that this is just an initial report, seeking feedback. And don’t the divisions over Brexit underline that Britain needs to do something? Waiting until 2070 isn’t an option.”
Source: The Times (pay wall)