Policy Exchange: ‘Get out of the North, it’s fucked’

The Drink-Soaked Popinjays draw my attention to a ridiculous report by conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.

Its argument is, in all seriousness, that northern regeneration has failed and that people from the north should move south.

From its exec summary:

Cities limited, the first of three reports, demonstrated that attempts to regenerate British cities over the past ten, twenty or even fifty years have failed.

We need to accept above all that we cannot guarantee to regenerate every town and every city in Britain that has fallen behind. Just as we can’t buck the market, so we can’t buck economic geography either. Places that enjoyed the conditions for creating wealth in the coal-powered 19th-century often do not do so today. Port cities had an advantage in an era when exporting manufactured goods by sea was a vital source of prosperity; today the sea is a barrier to their potential for expansion and they are cut off from the main road transport routes. More generally, the economic pull of Europe has boosted the South East at the expense of the North, Wales and Scotland. Luck has also played its part: in 1900 London had finance and Manchester had cotton. Finance has since prospered and cotton collapsed, reinforcing geographical changes.

There is no realistic prospect that our regeneration towns and cities can converge with London and the South East. There is, however, a very real prospect of encouraging significant numbers of people to move from those towns to London and the South East. We know that the capital and its region are economic powerhouses that can grow and create new high-skilled, high-wage service sector hubs. At the same time market mechanisms can be used to induce some firms to move out of the South East.

The report also says that:

As demand for more highly qualified workers grows, the lower skill levels associated with regeneration towns will make it even harder for them to catch up – not least because their brightest and best educated leave for London after graduation.

True enough – there has always been a mass migration to the capital (and the report’s authors seem unaware that many professionals up here commute to London). Perhaps this contributes to London’s high cost of living.

Yet the converse applies: people educated at southern public schools are drawn to the big university cities of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. After graduation, they stick around – over fifty per cent of Salford and Manchester students make their homes up here. And don’t forget that much of the graduate middle class is making inroads into working class jobs. You’re as likely to hear a plummy bray when you phone a call centre or order a drink as you are in Piccadilly skyscrapers or the Circle Club.

Not even Policy Exchange can argue that regeneration has done nothing to improve deprived areas. That’s even considering the fact that Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have become big financial centres, and then most financial and corporate institutions are represented in even the tiniest county shithole.

Say what you like about the government but they have ploughed a lot of money into low-income communities and much of it has made a real, tangible difference. It is wrong for the report to say that ‘regeneration, in the sense of convergence, will not happen, because it is not possible.’ It is happening – not overnight, but still happening. As a cab driver told me after he’d picked me up from Hulme: ‘Twenty years ago, you drove through here fast.’

Rather the report argues that many regen areas have declined in comparison with the South – therefore regen has failed. However, I don’t see that the solution is to ‘roll back funding streams’ as the report suggests. Could the inequality be more to do with the centralisation of democracy in London and the huge amounts of trade that roll into it every day? For that matter, could current social problems have anything to do with the free market fundamentalism of the 1980s and the effect it had of tearing the nation in two?

As for Policy Exchange’s proposal of a mass migration south, there’s so many holes in this it’s hard to know where to start. How is such an exodus to be managed? Will the Home Counties be able to handle millions of Bradford and Oldham residents seeking accommodation and work? Aren’t the right supposed to be against mass immigration? (And why do Policy Exchange want this? Hak Mao suggests that when the report talks about ‘support [ing] relatively poor communities,’ this is code for ‘a pool of reserve labour on the periphery of the metropolis, employed in the service sector on the minimum wage.’) 

As Dave Osler points out:

[T]he impossibility of developing the necessary additional housing and attendant infrastructure in a region that cannot keep pace with the needs of its own natural population expansion is enough to relegate this proposal to the whackjob far right stupid idea file.

Policy Exchange wants to cut housebuilding programmes in the north and give northern residents the option to get on social housing registers down south. But this will surely be a problem when most local authorities allocate partly on the basis of connection to the local area. Imagine the clash between local and national government that would ensue if this policy was ever introduced.

Apart from this, Policy Exchange has no practical considerations. Sick of ‘regeneration vision after regeneration vision,’ it offers a dark vision of its own – a future where anyone with any skills or money is encouraged to move south, reducing the north to the wasteland of the metropolitan political class’s prejudiced imaginations.

I’m not a Northern sentimentalist. I recognise there are problems – the Liverpool City of Culture has been completely messed up by its council (hence its one-star rating) and cities still have high levels of unemployment and violent crime. I have no love for the godforsaken cow towns on the edge of Yorkshire and Greater Manchester and even less for Cheshire’s soulless gin ‘n’ jag belt. Yet Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester are three of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities I’ve lived in, from centre to outskirts.

The Tories have distanced themselves from the Policy Exchange report, as well they might – Cameron is desperate to get Tory seats here and wants people to forget the decimation of the North during the Thatcher experiment. But it’s hard not to agree with Dave Osler. This document, even in its style of complacent whimsy, embodies metropolitan ignorance of and contempt for the North. At least the contempt is finally out in the open, so that we have some idea of what we will have to deal with when these bastards get back into power.

Update: one last thought from Dave.

I’m still trying to put my finger on what exactly so many people found so offensive about the Tory think tank ‘scrap Liverpool’ report on urban regeneration published yesterday. But at least it offers us a clear illustration of the mindset that dominates the intellectual wing of what is soon to be Britain’s governing party.

For the denizens of Hayekville, there really is no such thing as community. The authors cannot seem to fathom why anybody would want to stay in a place where they have lived all their lives, and can trace their family back generations, when they could simply head south and launch their own biotech start-up or qualify as a Chartered Financial Analyst instead.

I was trying to figure out the nub of my annoyance as well and couldn’t quite do it. But it’s as Dave says. The authors of the Policy Exchange report simply can’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t want to, in Carl Hiaasen’s words, ‘run out on a dying friend.’

3 Responses to “Policy Exchange: ‘Get out of the North, it’s fucked’”

  1. Rachel Fox Says:

    Isn’t it time think tanks were outlawed?
    This story must have been a Labour invention/plant. So desperate are they to get the Tories back in the bad press books…It’s sad really.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    This is a massive embarrassment for the Tories as they are desperate to win seats in the North. Note their condemnation of the report.

    I don’t think banning think tanks is a serious answer.

  3. How not to defend the North « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] not to defend the North Lucy Mangan writes in the Guardian about Policy Exchange’s stupid Northern evacuation plan. Although I agree with what she says, this is a terrible […]

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