Last modified: 09 April 2014
It’s much easier to criticise than it is to do something. I say it a lot to trolls on YouTube and I write about it, and I try to balance my criticism with action. I suggest improvements, I step out of my comfort zone to try things I’m bad it, and I do real things that other people might criticise. Sure enough, I get criticised, but that’s okay.
But sometimes I’m negative, and it’s usually about the economic underachievement of the North of England. I moan about how The Economist gets it wrong, how top politicians get it wrong, and how even great popularisers of economics get it wrong.
Sadly this blog post is about that topic and it’s going to be negative. But I’ll try and be positive too and say how we could make right what we’ve got wrong.
This time it’s not about how London and the UK’s cripplingly centralised state are keeping us down. This time I think we’ve badly let ourselves down. We need a kick up the arse and if no-one else is going to give it, it’ll have to be me.
The Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) replaced Yorkshire’s Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward, as the government’s main mechanism for delivering government investment in Leeds after David Cameron became Prime Minister. I’ve been to a few of their consultations on innovation and contributed on twitter to improve their strategic plan. Either my views are completely wrong, or I’ve failed to make myself heard. The video that the LEP have released outlining their plan for Leeds is awful. If I was in Whitehall, my money would be going elsewhere.
The bad news starts from the word go with the Chair of the LEP saying that “some elements of the industrial revolution started in this city region”. Later he’ll boast that “the backbone of Britain was its industry and we can build that back up again”.
The problem with this “talk about reindustrialising the country” is that despite 6 years of talk and a weak pound, it’s not happening. Even if it was happening, this video and the bid it’s part of don’t stand on their own. We are competing with other regions for a fixed amount of investment and every city region in the UK can claim to have been the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Glasgow and Manchester probably have stronger claims than ours. Every region can also claim to be well-placed to lead the reindustrialisation of this country, and Newcastle and Birmingham have a stronger record of doing it than we do. Whichever way we play the reindustrialisation angle, we lose. Placing it at the heart of our bid when we are by far the strongest city region in other areas such as tourism, financial services, and legal services, is foolish.
Moving from the region to its people it just gets worse. No city region is going to claim that their people are arrogant, untrustworthy morons who love poverty. So what point are we making when we claim to be “down to earth”, and full of “common-sense”? What is uniquely convincing about people claiming that “they don't accept failure”, that “when they say they're gonna do something, they will absolutely do it”, and that they are “open to doing new things”?
Worse than being generic, our claims are just not true. The list of common-sense achievements in the Leeds City Region includes the people of Bradford West electing George Galloway as their MP. The list of people doing things once they’ve promised them include those who drew maps in Leeds a decade ago that included a still unbuilt tram system. We were not “open to doing new things” when we rejected Anthony Gormley’s plan to site the Brick Man — a project he later achieved as the Angel of the North — in our region. The majority were not "forward-looking" when we voted no to replacing our dysfunctional council with an elected Mayor. I doubt we're worse than our competitors in these areas, but they might have the sense to be more believable.
Next we hear that our region is “the second largest economy in the country”, a statement that means almost nothing. Count Scotland as a whole and we’re smaller than it. Count the Black Country as part of Birmingham and we’re smaller than that. Count more of Cheshire as Greater Manchester and we’re smaller than that. Yes, the Leeds City Region is a big collection, and achieving that grouping is an achievement worth celebrating. But anyone charged with assessing our bids is going to understand that size is less important than density and connectedness, and we score very poorly on those measures.
Our competitors’ presentations will not highlight their history of backstabbing, their lack of diversity, and their dangerously over-focussed economies. And so we shouldn’t celebrate that we’re “a very diverse region” with “lots of sectors”, and that “we all support each other”. The same goes for our “long history of resilience, the can-do, the innovation, the invention, the purposefulness” that we’re bragging about. Who hasn’t got that? Which region is proud of their can’t do attitude? Which city wallows in failure, fights innovation and lacks a purpose? None! So let’s not waste our time comparing ourselves on that measure.
There are a few more jarring phrases worth mentioning. That because “there's not been a history of central government handouts to this region, so anything it has got, it's used well” is as absurd as arguing that Barclays are better at making chocolate than Nestle since they’ve never made chocolate before. The fact that of our Universities’ output “a third is world-class, and 10% is world-leading” is an admission that we lag behind the national average to anyone who investigates. And by the phrase “If HS2 comes to Yorkshire, why wouldn't we want top class infrastructure?” are we really saying that we don’t want top class infrastructure within our region unless we get a high-speed rail link to the South?
The video ends with a challenge, “it's not why would you invest in Leeds city region, but why not?” and it’s a challenge I’ll answer by skipping to 04:20 in the video.
“If we're successful with what we want to do here, working together with the major city regions of the North of England will follow”. That one sentence is the nail in the coffin. The video doesn’t once mention Manchester, Sheffield, or Liverpool by name. The games company in Huddersfield, closer to Manchester than most of the city region, can only celebrate that they’re under three hours from London. It’s a damning blow.
Each part of the North has been trying for decades to be successful on its own, as we were in the Victorian era. We have failed and will fail again!
In development economics the key word in the mind of everyone who matters is agglomeration. The most hated phrase is jam-spreading. And yet that’s what we’re proposing, more of the same! We’re asking for the right to fight with Manchester, Sheffield, and Liverpool to win as much of a fixed pot of money for ourselves. Then we'll build our region up, and spread the investment as widely as possible. And once we’re wealthy, but not before, we’ll think about working with our neighbours. Whitehall will not fund that vision!
We’re selling ourselves as a region that plays it safe, and succeeds for itself and not the country. We talk about looking to the future over video footage of a second-tier Royal, fresh off the trains to London that we’re so proud of. The video is part of a pitch designed by everything that I feared the LEP would be; a collection of established businesses working to an old model of competing with Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield for the right to play second-fiddle to the South-East. It feels like the product of legal firms that service London’s courts, the backroom offices of financial services that spill-over from London’s global financial hub, and the remnants of a manufacturing industry that didn’t adapt well enough or forge the partnerships needed to dominate the local economy like it could have.
That model has succeeded for the businesses involved in the LEP but it has failed our people for too long! Consultations can only ask the people who are here now. Leeds needs to build for the people and businesses of the future.
The first point that the video should make, and one which the LEP have continually refused to listen to me and others about is that Leeds is cheap. It’s got homes and offices that are better and cheaper than most of the UK would dare imagine. A housing bubble that’s crippling people and businesses elsewhere isn’t really affecting us. There's less fear about us “concreting over our countryside” because we’re close to so much of it. We’ve got the room to grow, a great offer, and everyone can afford to be part of it!
We also need to sell how close we are to Manchester, Hull, Liverpool and Sheffield. They have big airports, and ports, great universities, and amazing people with great ideas, but we don’t work together well enough. These great cities are really hard to get between and we’ve been denied the infrastructure that would bring us together for decades. We’re ready to work together, but we need the investment to let it happen!
Let's stress how successful parts of our region are, and how much more successful we'd be if our struggling areas could make a move in that direction. Keighley and Bradford contain some of the poorest and least healthy towns in the UK. But just over the Moor in Ilkley is one of richest and healthiest places in the UK. We have patches of great success that prove we can do it, but poor schools and low aspirations have left too many of us behind. Big improvements have been made, but even greater advances are possible. If we focussed on our young people as East London has on its, we could achieve even more! Our region’s problems give us a chance to prove that growth can come at the same time as we reduce inequality; with the right investment it will!
We don’t work together within the region. We’re cut off from each other by bad transport, and by local governments that separate us and fight among themselves. We’re ready to change that, but we need help. We need a city region that lets all of our universities work with all of our businesses, not just the ones that are closest, to drive innovation. We need a city region that makes our buses affordable, our trains efficient, and our broadband fast so we can act strongly as one. We’re a drag on the finances of this country. We know it and we want to change it. We’re asking for a chance, not a handout. The business case is very strong and there’s a huge appetite for what investment we can get. We'll deliver the best returns from limited money!
In an ageing country, our region is young. Bradford is the youngest city in Europe and Leeds is the most popular student destination in the country. But our region suffers from high youth unemployment and much of our talent is being wasted. We’ve got the people we need to grow, we just need to give them a chance!
We’ve got the largest market in the country in Leeds and a passion for small businesses across the region. We’ve also got big successful business like ASDA in Leeds, Morrison’s in Bradford, Carlton Cards & Fox’s Biscuits in Kirklees, the largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in Europe in Wakefield, and a huge tourist hub in York. We’re a place where businesses succeed from small to large but too few of our small businesses are learning from and emulating our big businesses. The LEP can play a role in making that happen to create jobs and growth! We’re ready to grow more businesses and we have success stories right here to inspire small and medium sized businesses to grow, create jobs, and export more widely!
We’ve got amazing tourist attractions like Wuthering Heights, York Minster, the National Media Museum, and the National Railway museum. And we don’t have the airport capacity issues of elsewhere. We’re a beacon to the world. A centre of one of the world’s largest and most progressive religions, and the best Cricket team in history; the chosen destination of the world’s greatest living cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. The Curry Capital of Britain more times than anywhere else and our beer, cheese, rhubarb, puddings, and the Kit-Kats we invented and still develop here, are known all around the world. We’ve won more world championships in Rugby League than anywhere else, we’ve hosted World Cups, and Bollywood’s Oscars. We're the home of the world-famous Huddersfield orchestra and choir, and sometimes of Patrick Stewart; one of the most famous men in the world and the Vice-Chancellor of one of our top univeristies. Our brand is out there, people know us and they want a part of it. We’re ready to attract visitors and talent, we just need to help them get here!
Lastly, we need to drive home the message that this year we’re hosting the start of the Tour de France. Other countries have already seen our potential, it's time that our own did!