I spend a lot of time discussing the future of Northern cities. There are a few phrases that I hear a lot. One of the most common and most popular is “we don’t want to be like London”.
I get it. I don’t want to squeeze onto the tube every day to get to work. I don’t want to spend ever more on rent each year. I quite like the scale of Leeds and Birmingham and the wider range of people and opinions I find here. I get that.
I get it in other ways too. I think that Leeds and Manchester and Birmingham are becoming more like Lyon, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Milan, Munich, Dublin, Chicago, and Melbourne – and I get annoyed when those changes are seen as becoming more like London, as if that city was uniquely leading and alone in inspiring us. I don’t want to have my modern European city described as being like London when it’s really just being a better version of itself.
But far too often “we don’t want to be like London” doesn’t mean either of those things. It means "doing things differently", "having a different economic model", "putting people first", or other such feel-good things. And all too often that means not paying the bills, and continuing to rely on handouts from London to pay for basic services.
So next time someone says that “we don’t want to be like London” – whether it’s opposing a big new employer, or opposing the relocation of a broadcaster or a newspaper, or opposing a big cultural venue, or opposing new industries, or opposing better public transport, or opposing dense urban living, or opposing foreign investment – I’m going to ask if they think that London should keep paying for our teachers, nurses, and pensions. And if they say no, I'll ask them how they propose we pay for those things if it’s not by becoming a little bit more like London.
There are too many people with the luxury to oppose progress in the North because of the money transferred here. It makes some of us lazy. It makes some of us say that we don’t want to even try and share the burden. It’s selfish, and I think that we’re better than that. And it's what I hear most of the time people tell me they "don't want to be like London".