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07/12/2018

McCann warns inequalities are driving huge wedges in UK

Words: Huw Morris
Inequalities are driving huge wedges in UK / Shutterstock_739537123

Britain is faced with a 'geography of discontent' amid a slowdown in productivity that is the worst in Europe bar Greece and Italy, according to a leading academic.

Philip McCann, professor of urban and regional economics at Sheffield University Management School, said the UK displays high levels of interregional imbalances across a variety of indices including incomes, wealth, jobs, quality of life, health and wellbeing, education, town centre viability, civic engagement and infrastructure.

This has resulted in three different economies with London and the South East broadly more prosperous than the north, the Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland, while Scotland heads in a separate direction since devolution.

“The geography of Brexit is like comparing rugby league to rugby union,” he told the Institute of Economic Development annual conference. “To the outsider, they are identical but they are fundamentally different games in rules, number of player, size of the field, the institutions, the culture and the geography. When you understand the details they are not the same.

“It’s all there in the data,” he said. “However it is hidden in our national and political narratives about who we are and where we are going. Political and media narratives are shaped by the experience of the people who develop those narratives and the vast majority of advisers, specialists, government people, consultancies, media and think tanks are in London.

"They reflect their understanding of the world but it does not speak to half the country.”

Accompanying the imbalances, Britain has “the most centralised and top-down governance system of any industrialised country”. This is “uniquely ill-equipped to address the realities or the UK economy and the EU referendum result expressed “where half of the people see themselves locally”, arguing that “productivity underlies prosperity which underlies political voting”.

London is “hyper-globalised” and is less exposed to any fallout from Brexit, but disadvantaged areas are likely to suffer the most from leaving the EU. “The UK is the second most unequal country in the industrialised world and Brexit will make that worse,” McCann added. “Whatever the scale of the shock, these places will have to restructure more to cope with whatever comes down the line.”

The UK should move towards a bottom-up and place-based approach to policy and governance. The country had made a start with city regions, devolution and debates around infrastructure but this was at an “embryonic” stage for tackling inequalities and imbalances.

Image credit | Shutterstock

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