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With the general election just days away, the parties are still fighting hard for votes across North of England.

What do those voters think about regional inequality? A new survey carried out by Populus for the RSA and the One Powerhouse Consortium finds that:

  • 70% of Northern voters thought the North gets a bad deal from government.
  • 55% said they are more likely to vote for candidates who pledge more investment in the North.

How could the parties address this? At the RSA, we’re making the case for more regional planning and collaboration between local leaders in England. This chimes with the people who responded to our poll:

  • 74% said government must put its full weight behind a bespoke Industrial Strategy for the North of England
  • 66% think the economy would be stronger if we had a regional strategy for economic growth.

England’s North-South divide

Like it or not, the stereotype of a North-South divide in England is backed up by the evidence. Economic productivity, public health, educational outcomes – all are lower in the North.

Recently, Lord Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission produced evidence showing that the regional divide in the UK is now as bad as the East-West divide was in Germany in 1995 – just 5 years after reunification.

These regional differences loom large in the public imagination.

A study carried out by Matthew Goodwin for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that geographical factors, where people lived, had an important bearing on how they voted in the 2016 EU Referendum.

And in a new Populus survey of 1,361 people living in the north of England, commissioned by the RSA and the One Powerhouse Consortium, 75% agreed “there is a big difference between the north and other regions in England”.

The North of England and the 2019 General Election

How could that impact the election? Northern voters, about a quarter of the UK’s population, are a key target for the parties. In particular, the Conservatives hope to gain Northern Labour seats that voted to Leave the EU.

What might influence their choices? In our survey, 70% said they think the North gets a bad deal from government (only 11% thought the North gets its fair share) and 55% said they’d be more likely to vote for candidates who pledge more investment in the North.

So, it’s unsurprising that the campaign has seen Northern concerns move up the political agenda. The northern newspapers have united to create a ‘Power Up the North’ campaign. The 11 Northern Local Enterprise Partnerships, together with the northern mayors and other political leaders, held a convention and produced a very well-developed Manifesto for the North.

Our survey found that there is huge support for nearly all of the demands being made by these campaigns:

  • 73% of Northerners said they agreed we need to overhaul the region's road and rail network, with devolved funding and powers to run local buses and trains.
  • 75% said we need to accelerate investment in the North's digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and support creative industries.
  • Nearly 4 out of 5 people (78%) said government must make additional investment available for the North's schools, colleges and universities to boost skills training.

Northern voters support better regional planning, not just investment

While investment in infrastructure projects is vital, people in North also seem to want a more co-ordinated strategy to helping the region grow. In our survey:

  • 74% said government must put its full weight behind a bespoke Industrial Strategy for the North of England.
  • 66% think the economy would be stronger if we had a regional strategy for economic growth.

This suggests that simply throwing money at regional inequality might not be enough.

Over the past year, the RSA has been working with the One Powerhouse Consortium to explore how regional ‘spatial planning’ could help. What is spatial planning? Spatial planning is the ‘where’ of decisions.

It is about looking at an area, assessing everything there (towns, cities, housing, schools, universities, roads, rails, airports, offices, factories, hospitals, energy sources, museums, parks, leisure activities) and then making a plan to develop those assets for the benefit of the people who live there, now and for the future.

How can this help? Countries and regions around the world have used spatial planning to focus political attention, investment, and reform to great effect. Notable examples include Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr, Holland’s Randstad and New York City’s Regional Plan Association. Closer to home, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Greater London all make use of this approach.

What’s next for spatial planning in the North?

A proper spatial plan for the North has potential to provide a solid basis for really ambitious economic development. (As indeed would equivalent plans for the Midland, South East, and South West…)

What’s next for this idea? In June 2019, the RSA and the One Powerhouse Consortium published a series of regional maps outlining the possibilities for spatial planning in England. In 2020, we will produce much more developed regional economic blueprints.  

I like the fact that this is a discipline in which the RSA has a long pedigree, having offered prizes for the best county maps and plans as early as 1759.

But these detailed plans will come after not just 260 years of RSA history, but the results of the 2019 General Election. Whichever party ends up winning the ‘battle for the North’ this time, our survey shows that they’ll need to deliver on regional planning to stay in power.

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