Since the decline of heavy industry throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, under investment in our regions has contributed significantly to the gross and ever widening gap in social and economic inequality that blights our country. Recent Government U-turns on the electrification of railways in the north, midlands and Wales, and an overall cooling of commitment to Osbourne’s "Northern Powerhouse" vision serve to demonstrate the problem we face as does a recent IPPR report which revealed a £59 billion deficit in northern investment when compared to spending in London over the last decade.
Since the ‘credit crunch’ and subsequent recession in 2007/2008 London has thrived, becoming the richest region in Northern Europe. By contrast nine out of ten of the poorest areas in Norther Europe can now be found in the UK. Poverty is of course relative, but the disparity between London and the rest of the country should raise concerns for us all. The lack of investment in the north is key to understanding social and economic problems faced within our country today.
Prosperity in the south has been the consequence of what Grace Blakely describes as "decades of proactive Government policy designed to expand the London economy." She points out that the UK's regional disparities have grown significantly since the 1980s when a combination of political and economic forces transformed the global economy. As Northern industry floundered, power was systematically transferred to a new financial elite in the City of London and government infrastructure became concentrated to feed and maintain London’s increasing demands.
As well as lack of financial investment Blakely highlights governance problems outside of London with the devolved authorities only possessing limited spending capabilities and lacking the "autonomy to mobilise local players, institutions, knowledge and capital". The Mayoral systems recently introduced to Manchester, Merseyside, and the Tees Valley are an attempt to answer these criticisms - though the snub by the Conservative Government in their lack of support for a cross country link between Liverpool and Hull suggests they are not be taken seriously.
The impact of this lack of vision and skewed pattern of investment is significant and the cost carried by the people of the north is severe. De-industrialisation has left the North a difficult and at times harrowing legacy. Rather than support economic development in our region the pro South investment policies have left the people of the North with increasingly high levels of child poverty, poor health outcomes, and relatively higher numbers of people facing the relentless attack on benefit levels, most recently made worse by the introduction of Universal Credit.
Put simply people in the North suffer much poorer health, more children go hungry and rely on food banks, and many more people feel the impact of punitive sanctions when having to claim benefits. This latter has led to increasing numbers of people left destitute, selling off their possessions to survive and facing the humiliation of food banks.
Ruthless in their denial of the structural causes of increasing inequality, The Conservative Government push the "narrative" that work is the way to escape poverty.
Do we really think that the people of the north are, compared to people of the south, more idle and feckless? Do we really believe that southerners work harder and this has made them prosperous? Do northerners prefer to spend on drink and cigarettes rather than feed and clothe their children? Are the higher levels of obesity and other health issues to do with the stupid life choices of northern scroungers?
Of course the Conservative narrative is untrue, a myth created and sustained to justify unacceptable inequality of government investment between the north and south, and their tax breaks for the wealthy.
Grace Blakely looks to provide answers:
"But just as policy decisions gave rise to this situation, they can also reverse it. Central government must commit to investing in the long-term productive capacity of the North’s economy. It must invest in infrastructure, education, and public services. It must provide a proactive, place-based industrial strategy that allows the North to take back its place as one of the world’s foremost exporters of manufactured goods. It must commit to regional institutions and real devolution to allow Northerners to take charge of their own destinies.
The only way to rebalance the UK’s grossly unequal economy is to support the regions to support themselves. The North’s natural energy, industry and independence will do the rest."
Hartlepool Council are showing that they have the leadership and energy to bring prosperity to the town. They are working hard with partners from the private and public sectors to stimulate economic regeneration. Recently £16.8 million of external investment has been secured by the Council to support economic regeneration, and initiatives to tackle youth unemployment have seen the rate drop by 17.6%.
A seminar hosted by the Council in January this year heard about two of Hartlepool's key initiatives to foster economic regeneration with capital projects worth over £168 million in order to promote and expand tourism and education as major industries within the town.
The beginning of this new stage of regeneration within the town will take on many forms including but not limited to;
• Expanding higher education in the town, with university status and a multimillion pound expansion of the College of Art and Design.
• Work spaces for creative industries in the refurbished former GPO building
• Church Street and Church Square improvements and pedestrianisation.
• TV and Film production facilities to be built as part of College of Art expansion
• Expansion and refurbishment of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
• Improved tourist information facilities.
• Advertising through a short film entitled “Coast” and a new brochure to be distributed regionally.
These initiatives have been developed with very limited public investment making use of any national scheme from which the local authority has been able to secure funds. Pro-active policies to support regeneration in the North would allow us to achieve much, much more than that laid out above and begin to erode the huge differences in health and social outcomes between the north and the south.
A Labour government will tackle this inequality head on, and through the National Investment Bank, begin what will be a long journey to prosperity for all the country.