If anyone has the chutzpah to revive northern communities, it’s Boris Johnson – but will he dare?

If the prime minister really wants to break Labour’s ‘red wall’ for good he needs to follow this prescription, from scrapping HS2 to overhauling how local democracy works

Vince Cable
Tuesday 07 January 2020 13:33 GMT
Northern Rail to be stripped of franchise, says transport secretary Grant Shapps

As we enter 2020, one of the few rays of light from the election result is the government commitment to inject more resources and more hope into what are called “left behind” communities. The motives are doubtless politically self-serving – to consolidate the Conservatives’ breach of the electoral red wall in Brexit Britain. But the response is right, provided they learn from experience and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

The problems here are complex, not easily reduced to north versus south, or poor versus rich. Some of the UK’s poorest urban communities were Remain voters in Glasgow and Dundee, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester and inner London. Being “left behind” is more about levels of education and age than it is about geography, meaning a very mixed array – mostly of towns rather than cities – are affected. Former mining communities in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Durham and Wales; depressed suburbs and satellite towns of big cities, including Oldham, Knowsley and Dewsbury; unfashionable seaside towns such as Blackpool, Cleethorpes and Clacton; and badly connected rural areas in the west country.

We are told that three big spending priorities are emerging from ministerial huddles: universities, science and trains. They are all highly desirable in themselves, but without creative design they will do little for these left-behind areas.

Take universities. We have some outstandingly good, internationally recognised universities and otherwise controversial tuition fee increases helped them avoid painful austerity cuts. Yet, with a few exceptions such as Teesside University, not many institutions are located where they can revive left-behind areas. Indeed, most of these areas find themselves in economic difficulty in part because their most ambitious and qualified young people went elsewhere to university and never came back.

If the government wants to make a real difference, its priority should be to invest in and give greater freedom to local further education colleges. Some are brilliant, inspirationally led and real beacons of hope. But most are struggling financially, and face thoughtless, academically imposed barriers such as the government insistence, at the behest of Michael Gove, that a good grade in GCSE maths and English is a pre-condition for any apprenticeship course, even those in practical subjects. If Dominic Cummings really wants to inject some unconventional thinking into government, this is a good place to start.

There is a similar snobbery around “pure”, rather than applied, science and innovation: the “D” in R&D. Of course we must nurture and invest more in British science, but by and large science budgets have been ring-fenced and protected. They do wonders for the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge (or perhaps the golden quadrilateral, stretching to Manchester), but rather less for left-behind Britain. By contrast, Catapult innovation centres show how universities and business can support cutting-edge manufacturing in places such as Orgreave, the site of bitter industrial conflict three decades ago.

Trains are another of the government’s declared priorities for left-behind Britain. I love trains because I can afford train travel (with the help of a Senior Railcard) and am one of a minority who actually uses the railways beyond London’s commuter belt. But the relevance of present rail investment priorities to left-behind areas is more tenuous.

Vast and escalating sums are being sucked into HS2, whose first objective is the Birmingham-London commute; the more valuable northern extension belongs to the very distant future. HS3, routed across the Pennines, has been on the drawing board for a quarter of a century now, and seems likely to remain there. Instead of grand prestige projects, the government should dust down a copy of the Erdington Report, commissioned for Gordon Brown, which points to the greater value of small, targeted investments in infrastructure. And it should also read and act on a powerful new paper by Coyle and Sensier, which shows how the Treasury Green Book – its investment manual – is systematically biased to favour shorter journey times for southeast commuters rather than improving creaking infrastructure in the north.

If the government intends to consummate its love affair with left-behind Britain, it will abandon HS2 (or restart it from the north), along with the Heathrow expansion and Crossrail 2. There would be quicker, bigger returns from unglamorous investment in targeted rail projects and buses, and cheaper bus fares. Except on London’s excellent franchised bus network, bus service provision is falling, leaving increasing numbers isolated from opportunities at work or college. Meanwhile, crass privatisation has hollowed out networks by allowing the cherry-picking of profitable routes. I somehow don’t see Grant Shapps as a revolutionary transport innovator – but if he can sort out this accumulated tangle of distorted priorities, bad economics and vested interests, perhaps he could prove to be so.

Money isn’t everything. A lot of communities have had the energy and the pride sucked out of them by the centralisation of decision making to Whitehall. There has been a modest move to devolution in England, but it has mainly been in the form of limited, “earned autonomy” via an elected mayor for big cities or city-regions. Giving back meaningful powers, including revenue-raising, to local councils is imperative to give disadvantaged areas the power to pull themselves up, rather than wait for handouts. And if councils have more power, they should also be more representative of their constituents.

The Scots have shown us the way, breaking up one-party states in their local authorities with proportional representation. If anyone has the chutzpah to smash the monopolies in English local government by declaring local voting reform necessary, while quietly ignoring the outrageously disproportionate House of Commons, it is surely Boris Johnson.

It would be an audacious but welcome move if he did.

Sir Vince Cable is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former secretary of state for business

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