A recent report by Policy Exchange attracted all kinds of the wrong headlines because it suggested that cities in the north of England might continue to decline, while cities in the south might continue to grow. This raised all sorts of northern hackles, with John Prescott and others objecting to the idea that people might have to move home in order to find work. This was an idea redolent of Norman Tebbitt (who famously declared that his father, when unemployed, didn’t riot but rather got on his bike and looked for work).
These headlines and that reaction are misplaced: read the pamphlet here and see for yourself.
The crucial part of the argument is that localism works. It is possible for cities to regenerate themselves, as many cities in the north of England are doing, but this depends on active local and regional politics rather than a reliance on experts or Whitehall. The authors of the report argue for decentralisation on a scale more dramatic than we have seen before: the allocation of funds from national taxation should be made simpler and more transparent; and decentralised decision-making should be given more opportunity to get things wrong, because that way lessons will be learned so things are subsequently got right.
One consequence of a simpler scheme of funding will be more unevenness. For example, fire services in coastal area currently get more money from central government because they are less able to borrow from neighbouring services in major emergencies (some of the neighbouring areas will be sea). This is silly: inland areas do not get compensation for the lack of fine beaches and coastal walks. The report states bluntly:
“Areas would not be eligible for additional funding simply because they are remote. People are free to choose where they live, and it is almost invariably better for individuals to meet the costs of their own decisions rather than have them met by society as a whole.”
Why should every part of the country be the same? As long as the differences are the result of accountable decision-making, let things vary. As an example:
“Remote areas generally have more limited access to broadband, for example, but those living in Brixton have to pay more for their house insurance.”
David Cameron, when challenged on these proposals (Policy Exchange is close to the Tory party), said “I think this report is complete rubbish.” A pity he said this, because actually there’s a lot in it, for anyone who wants to give people more say in their own lives again.