Northern Lights

The establishment of IPPR North a decade ago was a tremendously innovative piece of strategic funding by a group of north east foundations. It was an inspired choice to base it in Newcastle rather than the ‘usual’ Manchester. The UK looks different from a northern perspective; but the north looks different from a Newcastle perspective.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has made an important contribution to political thinking and policy development in Britain. It is a vital counterweight to the large number of extremely well-funded free market think tanks. Even for those of us from the north now based in London it is not always easy to remember that there are massive differences between the English regions. It is truer than ever that one size does not fit all.

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The founding of IPPR North coincided with the north east voting against a regional assembly in a referendum. In my view, the people were duped: Labour failed to make the case for its own policy and the opposition swayed the public with their constant refrain that it was an unnecessary tier of extra bureaucracy that would just cost people money and achieve nothing. Timidity meant that there was not enough proposed devolution from Whitehall and not enough reform below the regional tier to reassure people about duplication. But it would have been absolutely the right thing to do. Devolution to the degree we have seen in London was the answer to the ‘West Lothian question’, and could still be. The current ideas that are around for devolution to city regions are exciting (even when supported by George Osborne) but they have to work for more than Manchester/Leeds – we need stronger proposals for the more peripheral areas, including the north east and the south west, and more rural areas.

Proposals for an English Parliament of some kind are little more than a power grab by the Tories. It would be a joke to have another Parliament for 85% sitting within a Parliament for 100%. Much as I loathe Johnson in London, the mayoralty has gathered many more powers and provided a real focus for policy in the capital: the other regions need something similar.

IPPR North’s 10 year review report, which has just been published, highlights the continuing challenges facing the north and the appalling legacy of deindustrialisation. It shows how northern cities have been falling behind their counterparts in other European countries, a process that has intensified since the recession. There is some good news: growth in Manchester/Leeds is the best known, but the report also spotlights the relative economic success of rural areas like Cumbria and Cheshire. Government policy has not helped: a dramatic map showing the cumulative impact of cuts in local authority spending power demonstrates just how heavily the Tories have penalised the north in favour of the south east. However, this is not a simple reflection of the north/south divide. Much of London is hit just as badly as Hull or Liverpool: it illustrates how the Tories have (and will) penalise the poorer parts of the country in favour of the richer. The deprived areas of the capital – and there are still many of them – have more in common with the cities of the north than they do with the global riches of central London.

On housing, the report reinforces the point that there is not a single English housing market, but many. The regions could not be more different from each other, some have had an intense surge in property values, others face relative stagnation. Average property values in the north east are around one-quarter of those in London. House prices in the north east are therefore the most affordable, even in relation to incomes, but there is also a much higher percentage of owners facing negative equity. As IPPR North conclude, the housing statistics ‘highlight the futility of applying housing policy from the administrative centre across widely different housing markets: blunt instruments like monetary policy, mortgage regulation, and housing taxation have very different effects on different parts of England’.

The underlying feeling of optimism that emerges from reading the report is down to the changing politics, especially involving Labour Leaders. Traditional highly parochial attitudes are breaking sown and authorities are co-operating with each other over larger areas, especially the metropolitans. IPPR North say that a different type of leadership is emerging in the north and there are many new forms of collaboration. Even so, their key message is that the north needs yet more leadership and stronger voices, and it needs them now. Scotland’s independence debate has stirred people in a remarkable way, and the North’s future may depend on it finding similar common cause.

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