North-South divide is over, says Blair

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The Independent Online
IT'S GRIM down South. Tony Blair, the ultimate Islington man, will officially announce this week that the North-South divide is dead.

Stung by criticism that he has not done enough for the North and presided over a two-speed economy, the Prime Minister will embark on Monday on a tour that will take him to Liverpool and Manchester - two of the most deprived cities in England - armed with statistics which the Government claims show that life in certain parts of the North is every bit as rosy as some parts of the South.

But last night Alan Townsend, reader in geography at Durham University, and co-author of The North South Divided, dismissed the report and tour as no more than government spin.

"The Tories did this in the 1980s about the same time in the political cycle and picked out prosperous places in the North and unemployment blackspots in the South," he said. "It doesn't get round the fact that there are real and serious differences between the North and South which need addressing with investment. The relative position of places has remained the same. Leeds may be booming, but no other Northern city is."

His comments are backed by a National Audit Office report published last week which showed that people in Henley were healthier than those in Glasgow. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the report "Sharing the Nation's Prosperity" showed that the idea of a North-South divide was "too simplistic".

The report, which was prompted by claims that building 1.1m extra homes in the South-east would exacerbate the divide, has been compiled in record time by the Cabinet Office using official statistics.

Mr Blair, whose constituents in Sedgefield, County Durham, constantly badger him to do more for the North, will find the report reassuring because it confirms the view he already held.

It points to the fact that 700,000 jobs have been created since Labour came to power and that unemployment levels are falling across the board.

However, even the Government's own statistics show that the South-east is the only region close to the EU average for prosperity. Yet the Government will argue that the UK regional imbalance is far narrower than in other EU countries.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "What we are saying is that this is not black and white. There are indices that show some areas of the North are doing better than the South. This report is an attempt to put this into context."

The report would be used to focus policies on particular areas of deprivation rather than whole regions.

The North-South divide has been the subject of debate for 30 years. The idea that the South has forged ahead at the North's expense has plagued both Labour and Conservative governments. Labour spokesmen spent much of the 1980s accusing Margaret Thatcher of pursuing policies which widened the divide. To be found doing the same thing in government would be politically damaging for Mr Blair.

The 100-page document says that unlike previous upturns in the economy in the 1980s and 1990s when the South recovered more quickly, the past few years have seen a more even spread of growth and jobs.

The Prime Minister's spokesman claimed the report showed that the range in deprivation between the North and South was half what it was in the 1980s. Mr Townsend contends that proves that there is still a politically important gap that needs to be addressed.

Mr Blair was said to be surprised by many of the statistics, particularly those showing that the North-east had more under-fives in school than anywhere else in England.

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