Having enraged the teaching profession over free schools and his refusal to step into the GCSE row, the Education Secretary Michael Gove looks set to alienate another vast swathe of potential voters yesterday after appointing a new adviser who has previously suggested abandoning large parts of northern England.
Dr Tim Leunig, who will now assist Mr Gove in his reforms of the education system, was co-author of a controversial 2008 report which appeared to suggest giving up on regeneration attempts in Liverpool, Bradford, Sunderland and Hull and abandoning the cities to permanent economic decline – and instead focusing on investment programmes in economically booming areas of the south of England.
His appointment has infuriated local MPs in those cities he branded "failing".
The then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron criticised the ideas at the time. He said of the London School of Economics lecturer: "I gather he's off to Australia. The sooner he gets on the ship the better."
But yesterday the Department for Education confirmed that Dr Leunig, an expert in urban life in Britain since the Victorian age, had been appointed to the paid post advising both Mr Gove and the newly appointed Liberal Democrat minister David Laws, who has returned to government after resigning over an expenses scandal in 2010. A department spokeswoman said Dr Leunig would work alongside another new adviser, the journalist Alice Miles.
Dr Leunig, who has been chief economist at the Liberal Democrat-leaning think thank Centre Forum, was criticised in Liverpool as a "barmy boffin" for suggesting that Government give up on its efforts to "buck the market" by lavishing taxpayers' money on regenerating areas like Merseyside which have been experiencing population decline.
Stephen Twigg, the West Derby MP and Labour's education spokesman said: "This appointment will scare people in Liverpool. We know this man's opinions and the track record of this Government since May 2010. Now it's going to have an adviser that doesn't think Liverpool, or other northern cities, have a future."
Maria Eagle, the Garston and Halewood MP, said of Mr Gove: "Now we can see what he really thinks about Liverpool, if he is taking advice from someone who thinks we should all leave." There was equal consternation in Bradford where educational underachievement is a major concern. The Bradford South MP Gerry Sutcliffe said: "It does not bode well for areas like ours when someone who made such outrageous comments is advising government.
"Michael Gove had been to Bradford and met with us and I thought he understood what we were saying about the needs we have. This news is deeply concerning."
The Conservative MP for Keighley Kris Hopkins said: "I recall rubbishing these particularly silly comments when they were made. My views have not changed."
Dr Leunig said he was unable to comment on his new role under the civil service code.
The report Cities Unlimited – by the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank – called for all three million planned new homes to be built in three cities – London, Oxford and Cambridge – mirroring the way Victorian development followed success rather than seeking to promote ailing conurbations. Dr Luenig recently criticised the Prime Minister's proposal to end housing benefit for the under-25s, describing it as a gimmick.