A recent Economist article has prompted debate about whether Government business should move to Manchester when the Houses of Parliament undergo long-overdue repairs. Here in England’s second city (sorry Birmingham), reaction ranged from excitement to horror. Do we really want all those politicians, civil servants and media types booking up our restaurants, inflating our house prices and congesting our trams? The benefits for local businesses – not least my old colleagues in the political consultancy game – would be significant. But the risk of economic overheating could destabilise Manchester’s carefully balanced political institutions.
The Economist’s suggestion was clearly somewhat tongue in cheek. The cost of moving Britain’s political establishment 200 miles up the M6 would be prohibitively expensive and present practical difficulties, not least because Manchester is already suffering from a shortage of homes in the places people most want to live. But the subsequent debate was enlightening, with the article prompting claims of ‘London bashing’.
This reflects the recent political consensus that the golden goose of London should not be tampered with. It’s a view I’ve found surprisingly common amongst Northern business leaders. Time and again during speeches at Chambers of Commerce and the like, one will hear that ‘rebalancing the economy’ does not mean reducing the capital’s economic status, its pulling power for international talent and internal migration, or its hoarding of global finance. Instead, it is suggested that Britain’s secondary cities need to up their game and increase in size as a counterweight to the South East. Rebalancing without redistribution is the goal.
Yet redistribution, principally of economic activity but also of institutions, was the foundation of Britain’s regional policy for 30 years following the Second World War. Influenced by the seminal Barlow Review of 1940, which highlighted the dual regional problems of urban overcrowding and the economic decline of former industrial heartlands, post-war politicians sought to move both capital and labour away from London and other ‘overheating’ cities to New Towns and ‘development areas’.
Hundreds of thousands of residents left Britain’s major urban areas. Meanwhile, the Town and Country Planning Act (1948) established the Green Belt and prevented outward expansion of these older cities. Institutional redistribution, albeit limited by the centralising tendencies of the post-war consensus, came with the creation of Regional Economic Planning Boards by the 1960s Wilson Government. The broad aim of policy was to reduce inflationary pressures in overcrowded cities and increase employment in underdeveloped ‘blackspots’.
Results were mixed. Economic activity was more geographically equitably distributed during the 1960s than almost any other period during the twentieth century. London’s population continued to fall from its pre-war height and didn’t recover until around 2015. Some designated areas, notably Teesside, were successful in creating jobs and reducing deprivation, but the degrowth of Britain’s cities had unintended consequences. When businesses departed from London, they didn’t move to Northern England. They moved to the New Towns of Basingstoke, Milton Keynes and Crawley. When professionals and skilled workers left Birmingham in search of clean air and space for their Ford Cortina, they didn’t go to Skelmersdale. They bought detached bungalows in Hemel Hempstead, Bracknell and Telford.
Hence a new cleavage in Britain’s map of spatial inequality developed: between a ‘Greater South East’ London hub and its newly expanded spokes, and the under-occupied cities and dystopian New Towns of the North. By the late 1970s post-war regional policy was considered a failure by many, not least Margaret Thatcher’s Government who were hostile towards redistributive policies and enthusiastically adopted ‘non-plan’ alternatives such as Enterprise Zones.
Why did post-war regional policy not ‘rebalance’ Britain in any meaningful sense? One plausible explanation is the continued centralisation of its political and financial power in one location. There is evidence that nations with polycentric economic and institutional geographies – places like Germany and the Netherlands, with financial and political power split across a number of cities – exhibit more sustainable and equitable economic performance than those like the UK, where power is concentrated in one large metropolis.
Britain has historically been a reluctant decentraliser, never more so than in the post-war era, exemplified by Nye Bevan’s monolithic NHS. The contrast with Germany – which in the wreckage of the late 1940s built a federal system giving significant autonomy to the Länder (regional states) – is notable. Germany is now considered one of the most spatially equitable nations in the developed world, with political power concentrated in Berlin, its financial institutions based primarily in Frankfurt, and further economic powerhouses in Munich, Hamburg and the Rhine-Ruhr.
Should Britain’s capital be moved to Manchester? Probably not. But perhaps it could be England’s capital instead.
In a federal United Kingdom, Westminster could retain responsibility for cross-border and supranational issues such as foreign policy, defence and environmental protection. Each constituent nation could then have its own parliament, with control over fiscal policy, national infrastructure and energy. Scotland, currently the most centralised country in Europe, may decide to continue hoarding power at Holyrood. With a population of just over five million, roughly the population of Germany’s Länder, it makes sense. Similarly, Wales (population three million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million) could decide that the national scale is the most appropriate scale of governance.
For England (53 million), further devolution to the regional scale is necessary. An English Parliament in Manchester could oversee a series of regional states, each encompassing 3-6 million people, with major tax-raising powers and responsibility for transport, housing, education, healthcare and welfare. It would be crucial to match England’s Länder with proper regional identities and economic geographies – no more arbitrary lines drawn around historic county boundaries, à la New Labour’s Regional Development Agencies.
Nor would there be a requirement for devolution based solely on proximity to urban areas. Greater Manchester, for example, would likely choose to retain its current boundaries, perhaps with the addition (annexation?) of East Cheshire. Yorkshire’s population of 5.3 million makes it a viable proposition without division into separate city-regions. Carlisle, with its cultural links to Newcastle, could join an English Borders region straddling Hadrian’s Wall, rather than its Lancastrian and Cumbrian neighbours. A further, localised level would administer town and city issues like parks, cycle infrastructure and bus regulation.
The result: London keeps its prestige and economic clout, Westminster its international status as a house of curiosities, and the rest of the UK can get on with managing its business in a manner befitting a modern, medium-sized nation.
Tom is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. The article originally appeared on his blog, tomjarnolduk.wordpress.com.Tom Arnold