There were some pretty startling figures in the media this weekend about how the North has taken a much bigger hit from the recession than the South. This, of course, isn’t a new phenomenon. The social and economic scars of the recessions of the early 1980s and late 1980s, which hit the North far more than the South, can still be seen across the North and Midlands.
Unemployment in the North East now stands at 12 per cent, whereas in the South East, the rate is only 6.4 per cent. The North East also suffers from the highest rate of economic activity, the lowest rate of employment and the highest claimant count (which is more than double the rate in the South East).
Of course, politicians since the war have talked about minimising the North-South divide, but the rhetoric has seldom been matched by results. As I argued in The Guardian a few months ago, the creation of public sector jobs in places such as my home town as Consett did help to alleviate the economic devastation of unemployment.
Nevertheless, the growth of the public sector was only a short term solution and left many towns at risk when Government decided that it had to cut spending (and all three parties went into the last election committed to spending cuts). As pertinently, even after the boom in public sector jobs, the North-South divide in terms of GDP per head, unemployment and worklessness remained as stubborn as ever.
It’s imperative that more is done to create jobs and tackle unemployment in the North. Although public sector jobs are important and valuable, private sector job creation is crucial for the North to have sustainable growth and sustainable jobs in the future.
Although concepts such as the Regional Growth Fund and Local Enterprise Partnerships represent a step in the right direction, it’s clear that more must be done to create sustainable jobs in the North. When Government is making major infrastructure decisions, it should consider how these investment decisions can help regenerate the North. At the same time, the Government should be considering the impact of National Pay Bargaining and an anti development planning system on the North.
Just as the North-South economic divide remains as stubbornly wide as ever, so does the political divide. A map of England shows that England has become hugely polarised, with Conservatives dominating most of the South and Labour most of the North. As I have said on Platform 10, the Tories must develop a Northern strategy to help turn around their long term decline in the North.
But the issue goes beyond party politics. It is an even bigger issue if parts of the country feel that the Government doesn’t understand the North and people in the North feel that they aren’t being adequately represented or listened to. There’s no Minister for the North East, for example, in the Government and there are no North Eastern MPs or peers in either the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet.
All political parties need to be addressing the important question of how to narrow the economic and political North – South divide.