I’m one of the “thoughtfully stupid” people proposing to move the UK capital away from London. Although I disagree with Chaminda on almost everything in the piece I’m glad that it’s been written. The capital too rarely thinks about its place within the UK. I have written about how this worsens the lives of people in all parts of the UK, perhaps most of all in London (type 7).
You can read arguments I’ve made in the past. You can look at the data I have that informs my disagreement with Chaminda. But here I want to respond to a very useful and specific question.
“How would moving the capital to Birmingham help Redcar and Hartlepool except for making homeowners in Solihull wealthy?”
I’m on a train to London ( type 4). To meet with three UK public bodies. I could not really do that if I lived in Hartlepool or Redcar. From Leeds it would be hard and expensive. From Birmingham it is pretty easy. I am absolutely convinced that living in Birmingham makes my opinions matter more within UK debate.
I have just over an hour and a half, so this piece will be too long, contain too few links, and contain too many mistakes. But I think the question is a great one, so I want to answer it. My preference is for Manchester to be capital, but the arguments are similar.
Moving the capital to Birmingham would deliver a windfall to owners of property in the West Midlands. Moving it to Manchester would do the same in Greater Manchester. It would deliver a corresponding loss to the people of Greater London.
These are all good things.
Birmingham and Manchester have proven themselves willing and able to build enough homes to keep prices stable. Greater values would increase development rates. And in London, lower prices would make housing more affordable. Overall the UK wins. We would be exchanging a housing crisis in London for an economic stimulus further North. We would also be selling hugely valuable prime property in London to buy much cheaper property somewhere else.
But how would this help Redcar and Hartlepool?
I’ve written about Redcar before – I grew up 40 miles due South, my Dad used to go there for work quite often, and I have a decent number of friends who live and work there today. I last visited Hartlepool in October. I know less about it but I suspect that its best economic future is to become much more integrated with Middlesbrough and Newcastle. I commuted to Sunderland when I was there.
So let me explain why moving the Capital helps Hartlepool and Redcar.
First up, it would make the Capital more accessible . It takes just over 2 hours to drive from Middlesbrough to Manchester. 3 hours to drive to Birmingham. And four and a half to drive to London. By public transport it’s about 3,4, and 5 hours respectively.
But I don’t think that this matters much. What really matters is the decisions that have been taken by the UK government and institutions that just happen to all be in London because it’s the Capital.
The chemical and biochemical industries should be leading Teesside’s success today. They are not. We need to understand why.
The UK’s chemical industry was once a huge force in North England. Unilever centred in Liverpool and AstraZeneca centred in Manchester. Both are interesting because they are multinationals with strong presences in non-capital cities abroad.
Unilever moved to London, but stayed in Rotterdam. AstraZeneca moved to Cambridge, but stayed in Gothenburg and Boston. The moves happened because the UK’s industrial strategy has for decades favoured the South-East. Science investment in the Golden Triangle has been far higher than it should have been because decisions taken in and near London are biased towards it. It’s not deliberate. It happens.
Would the same happen in Manchester? Yes. But London would provide a much stronger balancing weight than Manchester can now. In 200 years we might have a prosperous North and a struggling South, if we do, let’s move capital again. But I’m confident that London will thrive and put its point strongly enough to stop this imbalance from being as severe as today.
For now having a Capital that was more like Hartlepool, and closer to Hartlepool, would make it much more likely that the people making the decisions that will develop a thriving chemical industry on Teesside in twenty years time will actually know where it is.
I find questions about Hartlepool and Redcar frustrating. They are underperforming places, but they are small and hard to help. What causes much greater underachievement is the underperformance of the North’s great, world-important, cities.
It is impossible to separate Hartlepool and Redcar’s underperformance from the wider underperformance of the North’s great cities. Much of Hartlepool’s talent ends up in London, when it would be better for everyone if it ended up in Leeds or Manchester or Newcastle. People could commute, or go home more regularly, or go home to set up businesses.
So yes, Manchester and Liverpool and Leeds will benefit most from moving the UK capital to Manchester. But the people of Hartlepool and Redcar will benefit too. Either by being closer to power, or by having to move less far, to somewhere less expensive, to succeed in a big city.
I was not born a professional Northerner. I wasn’t even born in North England. For a long time I believed that we didn’t need to change the system. I assumed that London was succeeding so spectacularly because it had natural advantages of size and location that the North could not compete with.
And so my first move, 19 years old, was to use my scholarship from a local chemical company to study in London and Paris. I hugely enjoyed my time there. The connections I made in Paris helped me enormously to set up my own business.
But by the time I finished my degree I’d realised that London was outperforming the rest of England and Wales by much more than we would expect given the data. And I’d seen with my own eyes that it mostly wasn’t because of its natural advantages.
Ken Livingstone had introduced Oyster cards on London’s regulated buses, but in Leeds the UK government had kept it illegal. The British Library had been completed and the British Museum refurbished. They were free, with fantastic free events, and cheap public transport to get there. The Jubilee line had been extended while Leeds’ tram was continually delayed and then cancelled. And at Imperial College I saw a University swimming in money, fully connected to the government, learned societies, and funding councils who kept on deciding that it should get more.
And since I moved back North I’ve seen more and more examples of this. I’ve documented them, shared them, informed the debate, and been surprised that I was one of the only people doing it. The North of England has long justified the case for more investment, and yet the investment continues not to come.
One year I looked at Chi Onwurah’s open expenses and diary dataset. You will not find a more passionate cheerleader for the North or data-driven person than her. And yet when I counted 126 tube journeys in her expenses, and not one journey on Newcastle’s metro, I knew that it would quietly affect her priorities. We are people not machines, data can inform us, but it does not lead us.
I no longer believe that having the data and proving that the North of England is the best place for the UK to invest matters all that much. There is much alarm in the country that we are entering a post-fact era, and yet for twenty years London ( type 5) has refused to collect the facts, question itself, or even engage in a debate on this.
For centuries the UK’s current system of government has failed to achieve what people who oppose a government move say is needed. I don’t share their faith that this time it will be different. I am convinced that moving capital would force the change.
Do I think that the UK capital will really move to Manchester? Not likely. We don’t have the institutions and constitution to even let us discuss that within government yet. Our national instinct is to plod on, rather than grasp the nettle. There’s a lot of good in that attitude.
But I do think that pushing for a move is hugely valuable. It forces us to think about how we’ve ended up as such a centralised country. It forces us to think about how networks of power serve those within the network, above the people who could compete with them. And it forces us to think about how England has become so unconfident of the vision of itself promoted to the world in its capital that it has begun to reject the world and search within itself for some identity.
I believe that the relocation of 10% of the BBC from London to Manchester came from this process of thought. It has been a huge success . Moving the Capital would be a huge success too.