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The south-north divide, as seen from the Royal County of Berkshire

The south-north divide, as seen from the Royal County of Berkshire

🕔21.Oct 2013

It hardly has a reputation for high unemployment, poor housing, shoddy schools and the many other factors by which social deprivation is measured, but that hasn’t stopped the south-east of England from pleading for special regeneration powers from the government.

The Home Counties, as the BBC once called the area, has put together an argument setting out how the likes of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent are being left out of the localism agenda in favour of heavily populated metropolitan areas like the West Midlands, with potentially disastrous results for the UK economy.

Lobby group South East England Councils (SEEC), which represents  the views and interests of the 74 local authorities in the south east, has published a policy paper – Clearing the Hurdles – Freeing localities to boost national growth – putting the case for empowering shire authorities.

In the document, SEEC chairman Cllr Gordon Keymer argues that the importance of the south east economy is such that the government should  hand over powers and budgets to local councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships, and that this approach would also pay off elsewhere in the country.

The paper attempts to dispel the idea that the south east is the wealthiest place in England, claiming that there are “significant pockets of deprivation”, although these presumably are not to be found in the Royal County of Berkshire, which boasts Windsor Castle and Eton College and Ascot among its attractions.

It’s what you might call the north-south divide as viewed from the south. Or, the south-north divide as SEEC would probably prefer to describe it.

Cllr Keymer explains: “The South East is very clearly an economic giant – globally competitive by many measures and, after London, by far the biggest contributor to the nation’s finances.

“If ranked as a stand-alone entity alongside other nations, the south east would have the 31st largest economy in the world, larger than that of South Africa or Portugal. It is also a global transport gateway for London and the UK, as well as having a key inter-relationship that underpins London’s economic success.

“But for all its strengths in innovation, research and development, and a relatively high skills base, the south east features an already high (and rising) cost base, a housing shortage, growing pressures on other infrastructure such as transport, and significant pockets of deprivation.”

In the West Midlands, council leaders often talk about being at the heart of the UK economy. Former Birmingham council leader Mike Whitby made a big thing about the importance to UK plc of the Midland economy, which he liked to describe as being second in importance only to London.

Exactly the same claim is put forward by SEEC: “The south east is the UK’s economic engine room. Our success is critical to local and national economic recovery, offering the highest net returns to the Exchequer and providing global trade gateways for London and the UK.

“However despite the commitment of all tiers of local government to economic growth, barriers remain which hold back the south east’s full potential.”

The approach taken so far by coalition ministers is criticised for favouring urban areas: “The government’s recent city-centric focus means significant opportunities lying outside the cities in much of the South East, and other two-tier areas, are left untapped.

“In announcing plans for a new, albeit limited, single funding pot from 2015 the government has taken the first tentative steps to wider local devolution of powers and resources. This is a welcome start but we need control over more funding more quickly to deliver growth now.

“The south east’s success is not uniform and cannot be taken for granted in the face of global competition, with large numbers of unemployed, an ageing population, significant deprivation, and heavily congested transport all putting pressure on the public purse and damaging future economic growth potential.

“The risk is not of the south east losing economic growth opportunities to other parts of the UK, but rather the UK losing growth potential to overseas competition if action is not taken.”

The document argues for a “localism first” approach with a presumption in favour of devolving powers and budgets unless there are good reasons not to do so. It sets out an agenda for supporting economic growth that the government is urged to follow:

 

  • Proportionate funding that recognises the South East’s potential for maximising national and local returns on Government, EU and local investment.
  • Ensuring all parts of the South East have City Deal type devolution opportunities and maximising the scope and impact of the 2015 Single Pot budget.
  • Setting councils free to fund growth by maximising local opportunities for finance raising, including through Council Tax, Business Rates control, and other means such as TIF.
  • Maximising local democratic control over delivery of central government powers and services to ensure needs and opportunities are addressed effectively and efficiently by local government itself, or in partnership e.g. with LEPs.

 

Proposals for creating the conditions for business growth include:

  • Ensuring bank lending is available to support SMEs.
  • Ensuring local planning systems deliver development and housing where needed.
  • Tackling the gap in the market for strategic transport investment that offers national benefits.
  • Increasing local control over skills commissioning and budgets to better meet business needs.
  • Lifting barriers to local delivery of high speed broadband.
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