Leading article: We cannot let northern cities fall behind

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The Independent Online

First, the tardy response to the flooding of our northern towns and cities - the initial lack of any sense that a disaster in the North was a "national" emergency. Now more disturbing news from the North in a new report that says cities there lag far behind in terms of three key indices: employment, population and skills.

At the top of the growth ladder, Bristol, Reading, Cambridge and Southampton. At the bottom, Liverpool, Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough. Whatever happened to the northern renaissance?

As ever, one problem is our tendency to talk up minor cosmetic changes and small-scale makeovers as evidence of a fundamental revival. That may be going on in some areas, as the renovation of central Manchester in recent years shows. But the relative success of Manchester and Leeds in reviving run-down centres by converting old factories into loft apartments and luring fashionable stores back to the high street may have meant we have taken our eye off the ball.

Population growth alone is an uncertain guide to economic success; some of the wealthiest communities in Britain are static or even declining in terms of numbers. But it is worrying when it combines with a skills divide between (mainly) southern winners and northern losers. It is not acceptable that while just 7 per cent of adults in Cambridge have no educational qualifications, the figures for Sunderland and Liverpool are 20 and 28 per cent respectively.

There is little point in asking teachers to remedy this. Schools in the North-east are no worse than those elsewhere. They are probably better than many in inner London. But booming London sucks in young people schooled elsewhere. The North can educate until it's blue in the face; it won't make any difference if the brightest youngsters pack up and head for London once they finish exams.

Of course, cities and regions go up and down in history. Many of the most sought-after urban communities today are small cathedral cities that hit the economic doldrums during and after the Industrial Revolution.

No government can control these cycles entirely or create an absolutely level playing field. But it can help to reduce the differences. Here are two suggestions. Devolve power from London and reverse the concentration of economic, cultural and political power in the capital. Then, reform the abysmal infrastructure. It ought to be matter of shame that it often costs less to fly from London to Spain than to travel by train from London to Newcastle. Tackle these ills, and we can make a start towards reducing the sense of isolation felt by many in the North, which is hampering the region's ability to share in the nation's prosperity.

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