UK: Winter Is Coming: North vs South

Last Updated: 30 August 2017
Article by Stuart Thomson

There is a serious battle about to take place between the North and South of England. The cities of the North, under the new Mayors and existing leaders, are gearing up for a battle with the South (seen largely as London). This battle will tell us not just about government priorities but also how to approach engagement as well.

There have been worries expressed that the Government's emphasis on balancing the economy of the UK is starting to slide and that the once ubiquitous #NorthernPowerhouse is being consigned to the dustbin of history along with everything else associated with the official opposition that is George Osborne.

The announcement that the Government has decided not to electrify the whole rail line between Liverpool and Newcastle was characterised by Labour as a 'slap in the face'. This was followed hours later by the Government's endorsement of the Crossrail 2 project for London.

Unsurprisingly, tension has risen and outrage has been flooding south.

But what does this mean for communications and engagement?

Poor Government communications – by placing these two sets of announcements together, it should have been obvious that there would be a reaction especially from newly elected Mayors who are looking to establish themselves. The North is not 'anti-Crossrail 2' but coming hours after the apparent cut in their own projects, the Government has made it a battle. So this still points to a lack of clarity and consistency when it comes to government communications and approach.

The parties themselves are also a little confused. Whilst Labour's manifesto committed the party to 'Crossrail of the North' and Crossrail 2, the Conservative's forgot to mention Crossrail 2 but did sign up to 'Northern Powerhouse Rail'.

The Mayors – Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, will play a key role in the relationship between the Mayors and the Government. As the most high-profile Conservative Mayor, he will need to decide whether to keep out of these current discussions, side with the Government or go with the other Mayors. That decision will be critical.

The other Mayors need to be careful that they simply do not become sidekicks to Andy Burnham and it should also be remembered that many parts of the North have chosen not to be represented by a Mayor (or for some, not yet).

South = London = Westminster elites – there appears to still be a great deal of mileage in blaming political elites based in the South.

Brexit – the needs of different parts of the economy may not align nicely during the Brexit negotiations and in the eventual deal that is struck. Any deal that looks to help the financial services sector will, for some in the North, be seen to favour London (although Leeds and Edinburgh may not agree entirely with this...). The reality is that if London fails from Brexit that will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the country and everyone is aware of this. Whilst the main media emphasis is on which sectors will 'win' or 'lose' this will knock-on to parts of the country as well. So this is another of the Brexit decisions that is currently in the 'having cake and eating it' pile.

London needs to work harder with the rest of the country – whilst many bodies have undoubtedly been doing this there appears to remain a lack of trust or a suspicion of London that needs to be overcome. Maybe Government needs to hear the message of London and the rest of the country working together a little clearer.

The future of devolution – we appear to be at a real decision-point regarding devolution and the Government's continued commitment to it. The Government has important decisions ahead of it regarding powers and finances that it could devolve but whether it will or not is as yet unclear. Again, there could be differences between what London and other cities achieve. The added complication is what Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may look for post-Brexit as well.

Dangers for the North – under many of the current financial formulas, London seems to come out top. Changing these processes is possible, as is just deciding to spend money elsewhere. But these are political decisions, normally on the part of central government. They could well demand that, just as London is making a financial contribution to projects, then other cities can do the same. But if the financial position of these cities is weaker then they simply will not have the money available to invest. A self-fulfilling prophecy certainly but an argument that reflects back on the cities of the North and the priorities they set.

There is also the need for the North to maintain a unity of purpose. This means Mayors not thinking that they should dominate proceedings or using their direct mandate to claim greater influence or power than, for instance, council leaders.

The worst thing for everyone concerned would be for the discussion to become portrayed as a battle of the projects. All those mentioned are needed are very real economic, social and environmental reasons. If that is the route then the chances of success for anyone is limited. The common 'enemy' is an over-centralised state which leaves cities, north or south, with very little ability to act in its own best interests.

25 July 2017

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