Levelling up the North: Can Johnson do it? | Jonis Liban

As a result of the General Election, the emergence of “Blue Wall” Conservative MP’s has spurred new thinking about how Boris Johnson’s government should proceed in helping “left behind communities” that have voted Conservative for the first time. There has even been talk of moving Conservative Central Headquarters outside London so the government thinking is re-calibrated towards these new voters.

Johnson’s administration has even pledged to ensure that his government plans to spend £80 billion pounds worth of taxpayers’ money on infrastructure spending in Northern seats that helped deliver victory to the Conservative Party in December. Whilst this is a positive development, unless there is significant red meat added to what this approach would entail, this will only ensure that this is merely signature projects.

There is an opportunity now that Johnson as Prime Minister relies on Northern and Midlands constituencies in a way that no Conservative Party leader has done for decades. This creates an opportunity for the urgent task of ensuring a significant reorientation in the way that the British State operates. For far too long, because London has operated as a independent city-state as opposed to a successful self reliant city, state resources have been focused on London and the South East as opposed to other parts of the country.

So how can we rectify this? As Sam Bowman has previously argued, improving transport links between towns and cities helps ensure that the proceeds of growth in cities can be shared with towns also benefiting from this. This is why it’s good news that there are currently plans to ensure greater connectivity within the West Midlands. However this is only a small part of the re-calibration needed in the British state. Whilst it is true that Margate has improved significantly from better infrastructure that connects it to London, the reverse can also be possible; dysfunction in cities can not only ensure that the potential of that city is wasted and the effects of that dysfunction can affect the area surrounding those cities.

A classic example of this is Birmingham, which has become a by-word for governance failure. The figure for knife crime shows that there is a massive increase of more than 500 in offences involving knives in the year to September 2019 to 3,649. Waves of stabbings have been partly responsible for the surge. The same story can be seen with infant mortality, where Birmingham again tops the list of highest rate of infant deaths with 8.4 for 1,000 born in 2016, which is twice the national average. Birmingham Council itself has received its third auditor warning in the last four years as a result of being accused of “unprecedented levels of financial incompetence”.

When faced with a problem like this, merely connecting towns with cities and ensuring greater connectivity within cities through massive investment in infrastructure is not enough. The basic problem remains, which is that large councils in cities like Birmingham are simply too large to administer a population of 1.1 million and oversee 79 schools, which is a massive job. The Council itself has more than 120 politicians – more than the US Senate.

The Council as it’s currently arranged is simply not fit for purpose. As a result of this, the rot of incompetence bleeds through the region. An example would be how the council plans to copy Ghent’s overnight transformation to ensure its car free ambitions. Ghent has a population of 250,000; Birmingham’s ambitions for 5% car use by 2023 cannot be realised as long as public transport in the city remains so woeful. France’s Second, Third and Fourth cities for instance have eight metro lines between them; Birmingham by comparison is still lagging with one metro line cutting through the city centre.

Andrew Mitchell, a couple of years ago, muted the idea of breaking up Birmingham Council as the current structure was simply not serving the residents of Birmingham properly. If Boris Johnson means what he says about wanting to level-up the United Kingdom in a bid to end regional disparity he could start here. There is no reason why Birmingham could not be every bit as successful as Manchester or London: it has an internationally mobile population; many of the world leading universities are at its doorstep; it has more canals than Venice and star-attractions such as Symphony Hall. Dysfunctional over-centralised political governance has held Birmingham and the West Midlands back for decades.


Photo by Johnny Wilson on Flickr. 

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