Regional strategies are alive and well. But just in City Hall, London

Anthony Rae writes I’ve commented elsewhere on Transport North (here  – scroll down to the bottom) on the baleful and destructive consequences of blundering Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles. Then it was about his abolition of the regional development agencies and their Northern Way offshoot, just when they were developing a forerunner to the East-West, Hull to Liverpool corridor now being espoused by the Chancellor . So let’s now look at a related decision he took – the removal of the regional policy tier – and its impact on transport.

In 2010 Mr Pickles didn’t conceal his delight as he trashed a decade’s worth of careful partnership policy-making, in region after region, in just one afternoon: “Today I’m revoking regional plans with immediate effect – hammering another nail in the coffin of unwanted and an unaccountable regional bureaucracy” 6th July 2010   And in September he managed to both describe the problem, and cancel its solution, almost within the same paragraph : “We have a massive inherited problem sorting out the budget deficit and an economy that has become badly unbalanced. Too much growth, wealth and prosperity is concentrated in just one part of the country, the South-East. … Fixing this mess is a phenomenal challenge – and in its regional structures the last government bequeathed a cumbersome and undemocratic bureaucracy that is unfit for the task. Regional Development Agencies focused on bidding for and spending Whitehall money. … A country arbitrarily divided into unnatural blocks such as the ‘South-West’ and the ‘East Midlands’ runs against the economic grain. But nor can ministers rebalance economies as diverse as those of Leeds, Liverpool and Tees Valley from our offices in Whitehall.”

That all makes sense, doesn’t it?: Public policy and publicly funded interventions wherever they are from – from the regions themselves or central government – can’t hope to be effective. Instead we’ll … what, Eric? But at that point he’d reached the limits of his attention span and wandered off through the wreckage. Fortunately the Chancellor and the Treasury had at least heard of the notion that infrastructure investment and improved connectivity could make a contribution not just to ‘growth’ per se but to the spatial distribution of that growth, and the possibility of ‘rebalancing’ the UK as the Prime Minister had promised in May 2010. And so, in the end, when they eventually applied the concept to the North of England, they have sort of recreated a regional policy but without that name. With the public sector and policy leading the way.

Except that there is one region of the country where regional policy never went away, but instead continued to flourish, and be effective, and popular. It just happens to be in the richest region in the country, and overseen by a Conservative politician. Because, behind the Boris Johnson show, lies the reaffirmation of regional planning, investment in strategic connectivity, and public/private partnership. The only problem is this defacto regional policy it’s deeply unbalanced – not Boris; the regional disparity – and so has not reduced the North-South divide but instead made it worse.

Now London, and the South East, were already drawing away from the other regions – had been for decades – but now there are no competitors when it comes to regional advocacy and lobbying. The Mayor of London has become not just the most powerful advocate amongst the regions, but the only one. And with City Hall just a stroll away from Whitehall, it’s been very easy for Boris to amble over every other week, fill his Gladstone bag with immense quantities of public money, in order to continue the goldplating of ‘the greatest city on earth’.

And then plan for wave after wave of more such investment, stretching endlessly into the future. And as, in consequence, London attracts more growth and success, then such investment becomes necessary and self-perpetuating – a perfect justification. The London regional authority – their RDA – remains in place, powering ahead and mysteriously protected from by Eric’s abolitionism. So it works economically, politically and as a demonstration of the institutional and policy model; but not nationally – in terms of regional balance and equity – or sustainably.

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Just the latest example is July’s ‘Mayor of London issues stark wake-up call on capital’s infrastructure requirements’ as he launched the London Infrastructure Plan 2050Just the latest example is July’s ‘Mayor of London issues stark wake-up call on capital’s infrastructure requirements’ as he launched the London Infrastructure Plan 2050 – and you can download the Plan and the many volumes of supporting analysis here.

First of all, let’s look at the language; the clamouring urgency, the insistence as the capital shouts down all other voices as it barges to the front of queue, but also the longtermism and the breadth: “This plan is a real wake up call to the stark needs that face London over the next half century. Infrastructure underpins everything we do and we all use it every day. Without a long term plan for investment and the political will to implement it this city will falter. Londoners need to know they will get the homes, water, energy, schools, transport, digital connectivity and better quality of life that they expect.”

Then the analysis and the process building: the plan is systematically, sector by sector – so not just transport (we’ll come back to that) – building the case for massive infrastructure in this one English region, in the completely confident expectation that it will be public expenditure that underpins the business plan, which will then attract even larger amounts of private investment. And then still more gains for the property market. A cast iron reason therefore for London to retain for itself more of the wealth generated by this mighty engine of growth: ‘Fiscal devolution is vital and would give the city greater financial control over its transport, housing and other investments, and provide a base against which to borrow prudently.’

(And – icing on the cake – giving ever more to London, so less to the regions, is actually better for them!: ”We’re making the case now to central government for more funding. I’m making the argument to the Treasury that a pound spent in Croydon is far more of value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde. You will generate jobs in Strathclyde far more effectively if you invest in parts of London.” April 2012 

How much will all this cost? Don’t worry, it’s all been worked out in 250 pages of detailed costings and financial mechanics: “Arup estimate that the total investment in London’s infrastructure between 2016 and 2050 could amount to £1.3 trillion”. Doing the simple arithmetic produces a nice little number: that averages to £38 billion a year over the period, which is more than the entire base cost of HS2 over nearly 20 years.

The only thing missing, in a policy package that otherwise has everything … is the rest of Britain.  Search the consultation document: London is mentioned 584 times; Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham – not once. They, and the regions outside the SE, don’t exist. To retort that ‘It’s a London plan, silly, why should it?’ is to accept unquestioningly its fundamental sleight of hand and fallacy. Why is it only London, already so far ahead in the GVA race (£36k per capita versus £21k for the UK), that’s allowed this scale of ambition and the resources and the mechanism to further it; and, if left uncontested, what happens to the rest of us?

Let’s be quite clear as to the scale of the threat this plan – with its ambition for metropolitan hypergrowth and ever increasing ascendancy, its relentless Me!Me!Me!ism – and what it represents to all the other regions of Britain.

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Part 3 of this post on London’s transport investment plans will  follow shortly