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26/04/2021

Louise Brooke-Smith: It’s grim up North – or so they say

Northern lass Louise Brooke-Smith offers a view from the motherland...

Whether the phrase resonates with you through your respect for J B Priestley or because you are a Pete Wylie aficionado or, heaven forbid, a soft Southerner, the response is… of course it isn’t. It’s fabulous. Friendly folk, no one locks their doors, long, majestic views across the reclaimed coalfields, motherhood and apple pie. The increasing enthusiasm and recognition of life beyond Watford Gap is most welcome.

We are not cave-dwellers: we also have telephones and the internet, and the railway has reached all the way up both east and west coasts.

Facetious, perhaps, but sometimes it is galling to listen to people’s perception of life beyond the Midlands.  

There are parts of the North that are less desirable than others. But this is no different from comparing parts of the South, West or East. There are swathes of poor housing around tired and congested city centres, poorly served by frustrating infrastructure. Few people are lured onto the railways when they are faced with a train consisting of three bus chassis set on iron wheels that you could overtake with a gammy leg. The Beeching Cuts were felt heavily across the North.

While, slowly, policies and attitudes have changed and funds have become available to upgrade the track and rolling stock, with much of the current hype it is hard to accept that the national ‘glory projects’ aren’t taking precedence over the local commute around Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle.

Everyone knows it could be so much better and change should happen so much faster. So, with strong leadership and a government only too careful to keep to its promises, levelling up between the North and South is now a tangible thing.

This year’s Budget made strong reference to it and with the delayed mayoral and local elections upon us, there is increasing pressure to ensure that those communities who for years felt they had been left behind now feel a little bit more loved.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies is just one body that acknowledges that the UK has severe regional disparities. Some of those differences can be addressed by recalculating housing costs, but they could be levelled out even more effectively by addressing employment rates, pay, health and formal education.

“The Beeching Cuts were felt heavily across the North”

Productivity and the value created per hour worked in parts of the North is shockingly low. Some of this reflects the huge amounts spent on research and development in south-east England and the comparatively poor rates elsewhere. Whatever the cause, the levelling-up approach is a high priority and some speedy wins are needed to restore confidence.

Whether that is through investment in Northern town centres and coastal areas that have lost their charm, or by reskilling the workforce, Boris is keen to ensure that the red wall of 2019 doesn’t return to haunt him.

The Brexit deal-breaker over fishing rights was vital to some but let’s be blunt: it isn’t now seen as crucial to the North regaining its former glory. It’s a different kind of port that will win hearts and minds. Freeports, investment zones, attractive taxation systems and an economy that can maintain and grow investment once it is landed, is more crucial than ever.

And, as TV’s Phil and Kirstie would say, the success of freeports will come down to location, location, location. With the best will in the world, encouragement for new investment, the tarting up of high streets, the provision of good-quality affordable housing and the positioning and nature of the long-awaited effective infrastructure needs to bring the North into the 21st century quickly, let alone make it viable for the 22nd. 

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

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