I first realised the depths of the metropolitan snobbery that blinded the UK when I was making a short film for Granada about what we called at the time ‘the dirtiest city in Britain’.
I won’t reveal which it was. It got me into the most fearful trouble when the film came out, fronted by Roger Daltrey of all people, in 1989. But it required that I should get the data on all kinds of air and water pollution for the UK’s cities.
These were available for cities all over Europe, but in the UK – with the sole exception of smoke and sulphur dioxide (thanks to smoke control legislation) – they were only available for London.
The great northern, industrial cities, were not considered important enough for pollution data.
For that reason, if no other, I think of the year that the Berlin Wall came down as the high point of UK centralisation – when successive London governments could take their economic wheezes and just test them on the Scots.
That year also marked the end of a decade of de-industrialisation, when the creaking, unmodernised factories of northern England began to close. This is usually blamed by the Left on the Thatcher government, but could equally be laid at the door of North Sea Oil. Once the oil began to flow, the pound rose in value and our manufactured goods became uneconomic for export.
One of the nightmares of Brexit may be that this was just a first wave of deindustrialisation, and that a second wave – as carmakers and other modern manufacturers row back on their UK investments and rebuild in the EU – may now be on the way.
That is a nightmare for the same reason it was the first time. It means we will have to rethink our economy far faster than these things usually happen.
It means we will, once again, face mass unemployment, as a workforce educated for mass employment is precipitated into a new world where they are expected to be entrepreneurial.
Where we have one advantage over the previous wave of deindustrialisation is that there is at least a glimmer of hope that our cities, the children of industrialisation, will be set free from the straitjacket of metropolitan snobbery of a quarter of century ago.
They will be able to innovate, to test out new economic solutions, and to reap the rewards through business rates.
There are risks to this. The new government may, in a moment of muddle and confusion (could such a thing be possible?) claw back powers and responsibility to the centre.
The cities also live with a major disadvantage. Their main tax base is based on property and the vast bulk of property values are in London and the south east. Their flexibility will have to extend to shifting to new ways of raising revenue.
And there is a third risk as well. That they will not see clearly enough that a devolved nation means that – if they fail to spread the fruits of economic success – they will end up spending those fruits on welfare.
Trickle down may not work in the real world as it is intended. But it is a positive danger in a devolved world, where the failure to connect economic success with the whole city will impact directly on the public services bill.
The danger is, of course that the cities will be so stuck in the old assumptions of centralised economics that they either won’t see this, or they won’t know what to do about it. There have been successes, after all, from Action for Cities in 1987 through to City Deals, but the central problem of connectivity has not yet been solved.
That is the reason why the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission has been launched, ahead of a field of other economic justice inquiries (IPPR, Respublica) – to provide devolved cities and towns with the techniques they will need to take some responsibility for their own prosperity.
But, as Charlotte Alldritt argued last week, there is a new urgency after Brexit. Not just because of the economic dangers – but because of the fissures revealed across the nation, between the dwindling number of haves and those who are struggling with businesses, rents, mortgages and have yet to benefit from the success they see in the city centres.
This question of these missing connections between inner and outer is assuming a new importance, and it is about more than just transport links. The underground speeds people in and out of some of the most impoverished London boroughs, but they still lack those all-important economic links.
Cities are beginning to experiment – Birmingham with the social economy, Preston with their pension fund money, and there are more entrepreneurial experiments with new kinds of business support (Totnes), or new kinds of local energy generation (Wadebridge) or new kinds of local food business (Manchester).
But this is like looking at the industrial revolution that lay ahead only months after James Watt boiled his first kettle. We can see the future only through a glass darkly.
When E. M. Forster coined the phrase “only connect” in Howard’s End, he meant human connections. These are important too, and underpin the economic connections which are going to be so vital. But it is the whole range of possible interconnections, woven together, which are increasingly the focus of the commission.
David Boyle is a Research Associate for the Inclusive Growth Commission. You can find him on Twitter @DavidBoyle1958.
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