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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: If we want to bridge the North-South divide, let's send the Lords to Salford

Westminster Outlook The North of England has been under-represented in terms of peers since Mauger le Vavasour made the 180-mile trek from Denton in Yorkshire to Westminster as one of the initial clutch of 14 commoners 766 years ago.

Even before the lords and commoners first sat separately in Parliament in 1341, absenteeism was rife, as the noblemen and bishops of northern England stayed at home to defend the region from the threat of Robert the Bruce's invasion forces.

A very different manner of battle over Scottish independence wages today, but the House of Lords retains a distinct South-east of England bias.

Indeed, Lord Andrew Adonis, Labour's former Transport Secretary, now describes the upper chamber as the "House of London". He points to figures showing that peers who state their main homes as being in London or the South-east account for 44 per cent of all members of the House of Lords, nearly double the ratio for MPs' constituencies.

A House of Lords research paper illustrates that the issue is strikingly acute if taken as a percentage of just England rather than the UK as a whole, with more than half the peers based in just these two prosperous areas of the country.

The North-west of England is particularly poorly served by the House of Lords, with only 24 peers – less than 4 per cent – in the chamber, which is ridiculous when you consider that this is a region that includes the great cities of Manchester and Liverpool. There are 75 MPs elected in the North-west, accounting for 11.5 per cent of members sitting in the House of Commons.

Although Lord Adonis is Baron of Camden Town in north London and harbours hopes of becoming the capital's next mayor, he thinks the House of Lords should be relocated to the North or at least as far as the Midlands.

The likes of Leeds, Newcastle and Salford, where the BBC is now based, could bid to play host to an institution that – while not as powerful as at its pre-Oliver Cromwell zenith – still shapes laws and challenges government. He believes the prestige of the chamber, as well as the construction workers needed to build it and the civil servants required to staff it, would help bridge what remains a fierce North-South divide in economic fortunes.

For example, recent Office for National Statistics data showed the greatest-ever disparity of house prices in the UK, with homes in London typically fetching £428,000 against £154,000 in the North-east. Unemployment stood at 5.1 per cent in the South-east between October and December last year, while Yorkshire and the Humber remained one of the bleakest parts of Britain for job prospects at 8.6 per cent.

"London and the South-east are over-represented by a factor of two in the House of Lords," sighs Lord Adonis. "There is no reason why the Lords and Commons need to be next to each other, just so clerks in silk stockings can carry documents from one chamber to the other – especially in the age of email."

This suggestion isn't part of Lord Adonis's growth review for Ed Miliband, the interim findings of which were published earlier this week. But this does show that Labour is willing to explore unusual ideas to restore economic fortunes outside the wealthy London and South-east in an attempt to finally wrest the "One Nation" mantle from the Conservatives.

The growth review expressly built on the ideas of a Conservative who comfortably ranks as one of the best five post-war leaders that the party – and therefore probably the country – never had, Michael Heseltine (himself now Lord, of Thenford in Northamptonshire).

Mr Miliband accused the Coalition of failing to act on Lord Heseltine's 2012 review, which called for a massive devolution of funding from Whitehall to Britain's cities.

The Labour leader has promised to give revamped Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – which bring together councils and businesses to devise plans for regional economic growth – "at least" £20bn over the next parliament should Labour win next year's election. That's against £2bn a year today. Nine regional ministers would oversee the transfer of this money, which would be used for creating jobs, building housing and developing transport projects.

This is real devolution, though it would be unfair to suggest that the current Government has been unambitious on regional growth: as well as the LEPs, the coalition has introduced Enterprise Zones, City Deals, and the admittedly poorly performing £2.6bn Regional Growth Fund.

And it's not as if John Prescott, in 10 years as Labour's Deputy Prime Minister, ever got far in his grand vision for the Thames Gateway, a city the size of Leeds to the east of London.

There is also a risk that Mr Miliband is taking London for granted: the only reason we don't think like that at the moment is because Boris Johnson made people forget that London is a Labour stronghold.

But that's a calculated gamble, as last month Labour even won a first council seat on the City of London Corporation, the Square Mile council that by convention is stocked with independents.

Moving the Lords away from its historic home won't happen any time soon, but it's an idea symptomatic of a party that believes it can win an election on rebalancing a badly distorted economy.