Mind the Gap
I’ve found the recent debates over Scottish devolution interesting as I think it demonstrates something more fundamental than the need for Scottish independence. There is too much focus on the success of London as a global city to the detriment of the the rest of the country, and we should consider continuing political reforms to rebalance this.
Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest
This was the subject of Evan Davis’ two part documentary “Mind the Gap” on BBC2 last week, the first of which is still on iPlayer for at least the next few days. It’s a fascinating exploration of how London functions, by putting creative people in close proximity and allowing them to network, a process economists call agglomeration. But in recent decades, this has distorted the UK’s economy so that London is sucking in people, money and talent from the rest of the country. This is a concern raised by business secretary Vince Cable, whereas Mayor of London Boris Johnson doesn’t appear to acknowledge that the balance is wrong, preferring to focus on the benefits for London, with the assertion that this in turn benefits the rest of the country.
In the second programme Davis looked at how regional cities have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to regenerate an area after an economic decline. Sometimes it’s down to misguided policies, such as the Control of Office Employment Act 1965 which effectively shut Birmingham down as Britain’s second city. At other times it’s due to a change of industry, like the decline of cotton mills in Hebden Bridge or Liverpool’s docks.
There’s an argument for increasing connections in the North, where the M62 corridor already acts as the spine of an “inverted city” centred around the creative centre of Hebden Bridge. This calls to mind the 2005 proposal by Will Alsop of a radical vision of the Northern Supercity and I’m surprised that Davis didn’t discuss this with the architect during the programme.
His conclusion is that there needs to be acceptance from the regions that London is a global powerhouse, but also that government and business need to find ways to grow cities in the rest of the UK.
Ever expanding London
In this light, I think it’s worth considering two infrastructure projects: the Heathrow expansion / Thames Estuary airport, and the proposed HS2 lines. These are good examples of projects that are perceived to be based around London because they “have to be”, despite the exorbitant costs and local impact. Considering Davis’s report on the way that London functions, I think these will only continue to increase the gap between the regions and the capital.
Airport expansion – for London or the UK?
Heathrow is already the busiest passenger airport in the World, with Gatwick close behind. Expanding any of the London airports would be costly and have massive impact on local people. The Thames Estuary, “Boris Island” is even worse – astronomical cost, and it struck me a few months back that the mockups shown on developers website are deceptive in terms of the size and local impact. For example the scaling of the vegetation distorts the perception of size, and both the photos and maps neglect to show the existing towns. I made the image below on Google Maps, which shows the placement just off the Kent coast, with the Heathrow Airport zone for comparison.
Both of these need heavy rail investment such as HS2 in order to function as a global hub. On this point, if we need to have a global hub, why does it need to be near London? Why not create a purpose-built hub anywhere else in the country? Or at the very least, expand Manchester Airport, Birmingham, or East Midlands, all of which have good road and rail connections with London and the rest of the country.
HS2 – extending the London suburbs?
HS2 is massively disruptive all along the corridor, and will continue to suck jobs and people towards London rather than improving connections to the regions. We would only see this benefiting other cities if businesses and government relocated outside London, just as the BBC took lead with moving to Salford.
Here again if we are talking about improving regional connections to Europe, why not have HS2 connect at Stratford, rather than bulldoze through Camden? Other rail proposals like the Central Railway have included connections between Liverpool, and other docks, to London and Europe – also costly and disruptive in their own way, but with more tangible benefits for the UK economy as a whole.
A wider problem with the UK
Coming back to my original point, I don’t think Scottish devolution campaign will succeed, but I hope that it sparks off a wider reform about how we are represented. I think that the devolution issue this, and the London gap, only serves to demonstrate that our political organisation isn’t working effectively for the regions.
The devolution issue has risen in Scotland first, not just because of historical & cultural reasons including being the last part to join the Union. They’re the most remote region from Westminster, have the strongest economy outside of London, and as the first to get an elected assembly have probably noticed ineffectiveness of Parliament more than any other region. But other regions suffer as well, whether it’s through jobs, infrastructure, or as shown recently, flood defences.
Devolution for Everyone
We already have assemblies for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London itself, and there have been suggestions that Yorkshire, the South West and indeed all other regions might also be given their own elected assemblies. Coincidentally, these regions mirror the European Parliament constituencies so why don’t we continue this reform by aligning our political structures and creating regional assemblies for the remaining 8 regions?
Rather than create another level of beureacracy, I think with the right structure this would allow Westminster to be a forum for debate about issues of national concern. It would make the responsibilities of elected representatives clearer to ordinary people. At the moment, there are some parts of the countries where people vote for their local Councillors, regional assembly member, MP and MEP, with very little clarity about who they are or what they actually do. Is it any wonder electoral engagment is so low?
I think the disagreements about giant infrastructure projects and Scottish devolution come from the same cause: that our country has an unhealthy focus around London. If we reform how we are represented by continuing the process of regional assemblies, we can boost growth across the country. This growth would also make the case clearer for projects like HS2 and a new airport hub.