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To fix the north-south divide, revive the Council of the North!

28 January 2014

3:32 PM

28 January 2014

3:32 PM

These, ranked from first to tenth, are the urban areas in Britain with the highest average weekly earnings in 2012: London, Reading, Crawley, Aldershot, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Aberdeen, Southend, Brighton.

That’s from the latest, fascinating, report (pdf here) published by the Centre for Cities. It can be summarised easily: if you want to make it, head to London or the south-east of England. Or to Scotland.

London, as Jeremy Warner observed this morning, is still driving the British economy. Financial services remain vital both to economic recovery and the country’s long-term future. Strengthening other sectors remains important; so does the City.

But strengthening Britain’s other cities is – or should – also be at the top of the agenda. I still don’t understand why so many people are so reluctant to endorse elected mayors (and provosts) or seem so afraid of more powerful municipal governance.

Despite devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the United Kingdom remains a hideously centralised country. Empowering England’s great provincial cities ought to be a government priority. Mayor of Manchester ought to be a post worth chasing and its holder a figure of some modest national renown.

London, as ever, casts a great shadow. Can’t live with it; can’t live without it. The problem is less London’s hegemony but the comparative – and in some sense absolute – weakness of Britain’s other cities. Especially in England.

On almost every important metric London comes out on top. Take, for example, the number of businesses per 10,000 residents. London has 463; Sunderland, ranked last of 64 urban areas, has 175. The gap between London and Brighton (ranked second) is greater than the gap between Brighton and Cambridge (ranked ninth).

The same is true of business start-ups. London, with 75 per 10,000 people, eclipses Aberdeen (second with 57) and the gap between second and tenth is about as great as that between first and second.

Even so, there are parts of the UK that, pound for pound or person for person, are doing well. The rate of private sector job creation in Edinburgh and Aberdeen matches that in London (2.8%), for instance. Aberdeen, of course, has the oil industry and Edinburgh remains a financial centre. Even so Edinburgh added more private sector jobs than Birmingham, a city twice the Scottish capital’s size.

So why is Birmingham doing so much worse than Edinburgh? It is true it lacks some of Auld Reekie’s advantages. It is not a capital. It is not, sorry, very pretty. It is not – sorry, again – much of a tourist destination. And yet, despite these disadvantages you would think Birmingham ought to be doing better than it is.

London, of course, attracts young, ambitious people from across the UK. And when London residents quite the imperial capital they tend, most of them, to move to other already-wealthy parts of the south-east. Internal migration within the UK remains surprisingly sluggish. Only Burnley and Sunderland saw their populations actually fall and even then only by tiny amounts.

The idea London attracts the “best and brightest” has some validity. 47% of its residents are classed as having “high” educational qualifications while 8% have no formal qualifications at all. In Liverpool, by contrast, 23% are highly qualified and an appalling 16% boast no educational credentials. (Greater Glasgow, including both Renfrewshires and Dunbartonshires is the most polarised city in Britain: 41% are highly-qualified; 13% utterly unqualified.)

So that whole education, education, education thing? Yeah.

We need, however, to move beyond the private sector good, public sector bad dichotomy too. Yes, the private sector needs to be stronger in places such as Newcastle or Sheffield. No, the public sector (usually) doesn’t crowd out the private sector. London, for instance, has added nearly a quarter of a million private sector jobs but it has also seen its public sector workforce increase by 66,000 citizens. (Edinburgh and Glasgow, by the way, each saw their public sector workers decline.) It also receives – as it should – plenty of capital (ha!) expenditure.

In any case, the UK city with the highest proportion of public sector workers is Oxford. That, for sure, is partly because it has two universities. But so does Dundee which, after Oxford, is the city most dependent upon the public sector worker. I don’t suppose many people often compare Dundee and Oxford but there you have it.

Is there anything to be done? London will always be London and that’s not a bad thing but it would be good if the rest of the UK were more like London. That means, I think, helping to set other cities – the great drivers of economic growth – free. London has, in many respects, been liberated from national politics. Decisions in Westminster can still hurt London, obviously, but it is playing on a different level these days.

If I lived in the north of England I’d want something better than its people get these days. If I were a Yorkshireman I’d see no reason why Yorkshire, population roughly the same as Scotland, couldn’t have its own parliament. Perhaps it could be bigger than even Yorkshire. Perhaps, that is, it is time to revive the Council of the North.

That, by the way, would also help solve the so-called English Question that will, at some point, need addressing should Scotland vote to remain within the Union this September.

After all, most of the arguments David Cameron makes vis a vis renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Brussels also apply with great force to the relationship between the north of England and Westminster.




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