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

28 January 2014

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.

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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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Show comments
  • Slicer

    Another Scotsman wanting to weaken England. The “English question” should be answered by Englishmen not Scots.

    • terregles2

      But are we not all British at the moment.? We are one united kingdom so until either Scotland or England or Wales or Northern Ireland vote to become independent are we not all the one united country.? It gets so confusing. Mr Cameron says we are better together. Mr Massie is as British as Mr Clegg or Mr Miliband or Mr Cameron or indeed anyone else living in the UK. Are all the people living in the UK not entitled to offer an opinion on everything.? Are we not all proud British.?

      • Slicer

        Britain is no longer a unified state and is in the process of breaking up, whatever the referendum result. Scots have their own devolved parliament with it own set of powers. England currently has nothing . Mr Massie is thinking of Scottish interests first in his proposals not British.

        • terregles2

          You’re right Scots do have their own devolved parliament but it does not have control over the really important matters such as defence,foreign policy,social security or immigration etc..Scots did not want nuclear weapons in Scotland in the highly populIated central belt but Westminster decided that was where they were going.We had no power over that.
          You say England has nothing but the majority of MP’s in Westminster represent English constituencies so quite rightly as the biggest country England will always have the biggest say in governing the UK. I cannot speak for Mr Massie but my understanding is that he sees many benefits in all UK countries remaining united.
          While we all pay our taxes to Westminster I think it is only fair that everyone in the UK can voice an opinion on how they should be governed. We are at the moment all still British and all still governed from Westminster
          I have never understood why England does not form an English Independence party and campaign for England to break away from the rest of the UK and be independent. That’s what the Welsh and Scots did. We would all be better off as independent countries.

        • terregles2

          I did reply to you but my post has not appeared. Please don’t think I was ignoring the interesting points that you raised. I did answer you.

  • Fergus Pickering

    And where would the Council of the North meet. If it were in Yorkshire the rest of them would rise in open revolt. If it were NOT in Yorkshire…Building the bloody railway would make more sense. It would probably be cheaper too….

  • Steve781

    regional government was invented to break England into regions at the behest of the EU. Bring back the traditional counties

  • Wessex Man

    Yet another Scot telling us, the English how to sort out our (any) problems, our main problems have been created by the Multi-National companies aided and abetted by Governments of all political hues, shipping our industrial base to the far East and the disaster prone Government of Blair/Brown and the current occupant of 10 Downing Sreet.

    The fact that we still have people like Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru telling us, the English that all our woes could be answered by breaking up England into Regions should set alarms bells ringing in every English household! This is akin to Holland and Belgium telling Germany that it should be broken up into small states.

    After Scotland hopefully wins it’s independence later this year, it will be none of Alex Massie or Leanne Wood’s business how England is organised.

    I personally favour an English Parliament based in Birmingham or Manchester and the doing away with all elected dummies like the Mayor of Bristol, who thinks that motorists are a blight on his City and is trying to introduce parking permits throughout, without thinking of trade, introducing 20 mph speed limits throughout and closing all Public Conveniences to save costs to pay his enormous wages!

    • Fergus Pickering

      And the Mayor of Birmingham would be different?

  • Roy

    Britain has forgotten how to make a buck! The ‘money people’ know how to do it, but also know how to lose it … big … taking a lot of the peoples savings with them. So what is to be done? It would be a good step to have look at successful countries in the world and find out what they are doing that Britain is not. This is an hard lesson to take because frankly British people do not like to be told they are not successful and going down the tube. Take one small country that the citizens of the UK are told is a pariah state. They are told to develop a lie for this freedom loving democratic nation. This country bristling with successful home made industries is Israel. Yet Britain is being told to not trade with this country because it does not suit the agenda of it’s neighbours. Neighbours that are more interested in war than piece.
    This little country is one of many that could show the way if this once proud, rich and successful nation had the audacity to take a few hints on something that has obviously been forgotten.

  • Eddie

    One wonders why Scotland gets 10% more public funding than England or Wales then – though the poor taxpayers of those latter countries pay for it.

    ‘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.’
    Not so – As a Londoner (born 15 miles away) I left because my standard of life was low, property prices insane, crime high etc. Let’s not forget London has some of the poorest areas of the UK. Yes, it is full of Labour luvvies in million pound houses too. Maybe some connection?
    But really, go to Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, the South Wales coast – all utterly crammed with exiles from London, often oldies.
    Though I get your point about younger people, yet yours is a circular argument: they don’t go to live in other cities because they are not offered work there because there are fewer businesses there. But who would want to live in Bradford FFS?

  • john

    These half hearted, patronising efforts to boost the North have always failed and will do so again.
    We need real change: no monarchy, no House of Lords, no titles. Bring the UK (England?) into the modern world and we’ll have real economic success and the North will benefit.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Northerners love titles. In what way does the Monarchy contribute to economic failure?

      • john

        Let me count the ways.
        (1) Denies the fundamental tenet of democracy – everyone is born equal
        (2) tells every citizen that they are second class citizens who cannot aspire to the highest ranks in the country.
        (3) is the linchpin of an outmoded class sytem that still dominates Britain
        (4) wastes ludicrous amounts of money on unproductive pantomime
        (5) keeps alive silly dreams of Empire/Commonwealth
        (6) inhibits democracy in myriad ways (Chuck interferes in law making)
        (7) underpins the excessive centralisation of the coutry in London (8) underscores the role of influence/status to award positions etc (armed forces included). (9) keeps alive titles/HoL – both are undemocratic..
        There are many more.

        • Fergus Pickering

          But it is surely evident that everybody is not born equal. Some are born tall, beautiful and intelligent. Some are born less so. I m talented. You have no talents at all. I am not speaking personally, you understand. Some a born with a socialist way of thinking. Others, wiser, are of conservative bent.

          You mean other people cannot be Kings and Queens. I think they can bear it. I have never felt the slightest desire to be the monarch.

          It doesn’t waste money at all.It is extremely profitable . People flock to Britain and spend enormous amounts of money in order the see the Queen etc etc. Very un pc of them, but very true. And British people like it too.

          • john

            Usual nonesense. The political and legal system must treat all people as equal at birth – irrespective of their talents. Nobody should be the monarch – let’s pick our own leaders,
            NO evidence royals bring in money. Tourism numbers are virtually unchanged for the past decade – with or without royal events. France etc have more tourists than we do and Louis XVI snuffed it in 1789. Do you go to Belgium, Spain, Thailand etc to see their royals? No-I thought not.

            • Fergus Pickering

              But the political and legal system does treat everybody as equal, well almost everybody. You can’t vote if you are a jailbird or mad. Or queen.

              • john

                Really? What title were you awarded at birth like George?
                Do you get to review proposed laws to see if they suit you? Do the armed forces swear allegience to you? Is a seat in the House of Lords waiting for you? Do you hand out honours? Thought not.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  But who cares for these titles? Obviously you do and I hope someone gives you one. As for me, I am the Pickering of Pickering and desire no other handle..

                • john

                  I do care and want them gone. The House of Lords is a key element in British law making. Why? Please join me in working to end them.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  Nope. They are picturesque and a link to our glorious past.

          • Swanky

            Interestingly, we are told that people generally overrate themselves, as can be more or less objectively measured. E.g. ask everyone you know whether they think they are above or below average as drivers/motorists. Students tend to be stunned when you tell them that a bit less than half the class is below average in performance (the categories being below average; average; above average). Nobody likes to think that they are below average in anything, or even just average. I’m below average in lots of things, but I’m not saying what they are : )

            • Kitty MLB

              There is not a more nondescript word in the English
              language then average and who decides anyway?
              Scientists, Educationists and those who wish to keep others
              in their place. I endeavour never to be average- would
              rather be dreadful or a genius.

              • Swanky


            • Fergus Pickering

              I’m below average in height, driving skills and sill at darts.

              • Swanky

                sill at darts

                no comprende on that one

                • Kitty MLB

                  I assume he meant, he’s not very tall,
                  only reaches the windowsill in pubs, assuming
                  he even gets to the pub because he is atrocious at driving
                  so therefore bad at darts.

                • Swanky

                  I like that interpretation!

                • Kitty MLB

                  Thank you.
                  We do use our imagination down here in Agatha Christie
                  land, what with all those murdering vicars and butlers
                  not to mention avoiding little old ladies with strange looking
                  herbs that maybe hemlock :)

                • Fergus Pickering

                  Sorry sSanky, skill. I’m pretty good at snooker though. Sign of a misspent youth.

                • Swanky

                  Wish you could teach me! Snooker, not darts.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  If wishes were horses…

                • Swanky

                  …I would win key tournaments and we’d both thereby be enriched….

                • Fergus Pickering

                  As he Scots say WAHAAAY!

                • Swanky


          • terregles2

            People would flock to London and England whether or not there was a monarchy. How many people actually see the royals when they come on a 2 week holiday. Tourists visit London because it is an exciting ciy. England is a beautiful country and people come to see the wonderful countryside, rich hertitage, Bronte country, Shakespeare birthplace, Lake District the list is endless. I could write pages on the wonderful places I have visited in England and how beautiful they were. The fact that I never spotted any royals on my travels didn’t diminish the experience.

        • cbayley

          Your refusal to acknowledge any virtue whatsoever in the present system and the tendency to overstate your case (in this as well as previous postings, I see) undermines your case and makes debate rather pointless.

          Few issues are black or white, except in the company of pub bores.

          • john

            What a pompous response. There are really no good arguments for an inherited monarchy in the 21st century. If you don’t have a credible comeback – why bother?

            • IainRMuir

              cbayley has a point. To suggest that countries as diverse as Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Thailand do not belong to the “modern world” and are in favour of a system for which there are “no good arguments” is absurd.

              • john

                Of the countries you mention, only Japan ( a dodgy WWII hangover) and Thailand in anyway replicate the royalist deference that we see in Britan. In both cases, the relationship of the citizens to the crown is almost servile. The other countries have low-key, token monarchies – much more reasonable than ours but still an anchronism. I’m sure their constitutions define the role of the monarch far better than ours does (If it does at all).

                • IainRMuir

                  Dodgy or not, Japan has done rather well for itself.

                  I didn’t, of course, mention Canada, Australia and New Zealand – thousands of miles away and still retaining the Queen. If they became republics tomorrow, they would still be a testament to the institution.

                  One of your problems is arrogance. In your book, “almost servile” and “deference” = don’t agree with you.

                  Even Germany has a Head of State who lives in a palace, who is not elected by popular vote, and whose duties are largely ceremonial. But what do they know?

                • john

                  I”m sure Canada and Aussies etc will fly the coup in the next few years.
                  I notice none othose responding toi my anti-royal comments ever try to give the positive case for monarchy. Why not? Is there any credible case – please outline.

                • IainRMuir

                  Probably because this blog is about the North/South divide. You brought the monarchy into it. Looking back, you always do.

                  Pub bore, as someone said.

                  Try not to drown your (obviously acute) sorrows too much.


  • Gareth Milner

    I think it is certainly something worth considering. However, as a Northerner it pains me to say this, but I could see that a council of the north would take great delight in trying to bash down the south. If a council of the north was to exist, it would need to work in a way for the betterment of itself and not just as an entity to make northerners feel good because they finally have a chance to stick it to the south.

    • Fergus Pickering

      And how exactly would they do that? Cut off the export of jam butties?

      • Gareth Milner

        Could be a start 😉

    • cbayley

      Also a Northerner and have to agree. Blaming the South has been a prop for too long.

      Not saying that everything is hunky dory but elements in the North have never got over the fact that the old industries (wool, in my home town) have gone for good. I remember when one of the first colour TV factories opened and how it was dismissed as “women’s work”.

  • Ben Kelly

    I hereby declare the free state of Yorkshire with me as head of government and Elizabeth II as head of state.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      If you need an army the Geordies are available for hire!

      • Ben Kelly

        Nice one, you’re all hired!

    • Fergus Pickering

      Where is your capital? Scarborough is nice.

      • cbayley

        Harrogate would make a very good capital.

        • Ben Kelly

          Harrogate is lovely. Though it would probably be Leeds, has the biggest financial centre, and I wouldn’t have to move, well, i’d maybe move out of this terrace as i’m in charge now.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Isn’t Harrogate te Bournemouth of the North.

      • Ben Kelly

        It is nice, lovely place, not capital material though. Coastal capitals not a good idea .

  • Wyrdtimes

    All for devolution to shire, town/city and parish but what England needs most is its own parliament back and working in then English interest. Followed ASAP by English independence.

  • Raw England

    London is now a foreign cancerous tumour dragging us all down into multicultural misery. And its literally owned by foreigners. Its people are now fully detached from England.

    A better option would be for indigenous England to reclaim London. Physically.

    • IainRMuir

      Unlike Bradford, Birmingham, Rochdale, Dewsbury, Oldham etc?

      Tom Winsor: “There are cities in the Midlands where the police never go because they are never called. They never hear of any trouble because the community deals with that on its own”.

  • asalord

    Far far too late to save Mr Massie’s beloved “united” kingdom.

  • WalterSEllis

    I wish I’d thought of that.

  • MichtyMe

    The rest more like London, Hmm a ballooning public sector workforce? And just a wee word on poor old Dundee, in a tory gerrymander exercise in the 90’s it had its affluent suburbs removed into neighbouring authorities, so comparing a truncated rump with other cities is a bit unfair.

  • Salmondnet

    Yep. Just what England needs. Advice from a Scot about how best to set its various parts at odds with one another. It certainly won’t answer the English question. Only an English Parliament will do that, with or without regional government.

  • Kitty MLB

    We live in the southwest and adore the very beautiful Yorkshire,
    yet I can tell you its not just a North/ South problem, its a London
    does not represent England problem, not just the stench of Westminster.
    I cannot explain, except its so far removed from the reality of our beautiful
    and ancient country and those who live there live in a ivory tower, and could not possibly know what’s best for the rest of the country.

  • IainRMuir

    Part of the problem (not all, please note) is that Britain has few attractive cities of any size. Many in the North are more attractive than they used to be but Liverpool, potentially the most appealing, has struggled to reach its potential.

    The virtues of York, Harrogate, Chester, Durham etc are obvious but I doubt if they have the size or “buzz” to attract young entrepreneurs.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I am told that Leeds is a good place. And I know Manchester is. Liverpool is a basket case. Forget about it, if possible for ever.

      • cbayley

        Very small parts of Leeds are OK.

  • dougthedug

    If I were a Yorkshireman I’d see no reason why Yorkshire, population roughly the same as Scotland, couldn’t have its own parliament.

    Looking at how the Scottish Parliament came into being they’d have to start the Yorkshire National Party and fight elections for about 65 years and then they’d get a devolved parliament because the Labour party feared Yorkshire nationalism.

    It would also help if they had their own legal system, education system an NHS before they got the parliament as was the case in Scotland.

    • Fergus Pickering

      The Scots used to have their own education system. Now it’s much the same as in England.And what does having their own NHS mean? The legal system I grant you, something like the French, which should give everyone pause for thought.

  • Malcolm McCandless

    Broken Britain?

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