Good evening and thank you for inviting me to talk to you about the work of the UK2070 Commission.
The UK2070 Commission is an independent inquiry into the deep – rooted spatial inequalities in the United Kingdom.
Now there has been a debate about these inequalities and how best to tackle them for as long as I have involved in public service.
The uncomfortable reality though is that despite the government initiatives that have been taken, the economic disparities, particularly between London and the South East and the rest of the country have grown.
I doubt that I need to quote too many of the statistics to this audience, but to give just two from the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice that I was a part of:
- Median incomes in the North West, North East, West Midlands, and the South West are now more than a third below those of London and the South East.
- In London, the UK has the richest region in Northern Europe, yet we also have six of the ten poorest regions, making the UK the continent’s most geographically unbalanced economy.
If you remain in any doubt on this, our website carries a think piece by Professor Philip McCann on the perceptions of Regional Inequality and the Geography of Discontent. It compares the UK to 30 other OECD countries across 28 different indicators and demonstrates to my satisfaction that the UK is one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world, second only perhaps to Slovakia.
The impact of these acute and growing economic spatial disparities is threefold:
• Firstly, it means that we are not taking full advantage of the economic opportunities that those parts of the UK have to offer.
• Secondly, it creates an imbalance of wealth and opportunity that in turn creates division.
• Thirdly, it creates enormous pressures in terms of population growth, housing affordability and overloaded infrastructure on the economically performing parts of the country.
In short, nobody wins.
There is therefore a compelling case for continuing to explore these disparities and how they might be reduced.
This case is made even stronger by the potential impact of Brexit, which most economic commentators expect to widen our economic divisions, especially if it happens without an agreed deal with the European Union.
Given their longstanding nature and our previous inability to close them, a reasonable question to ask is how this Commission will be different.
I think that it is distinctive in two main ways.
Firstly, it is consciously long game. We want to look back fifty years and forward fifty years – hence the title UK2070. This will allow us to look at past and potential patterns of investment over a long period. A longer view is also vital if we want to provide a proper context for investment in major infrastructure, whether road, rail, ports, airports or ICT.
We will of course look for and identify early wins, and set out an agenda for action. This would include exploring new meta-regional or provincial bodies to promote economic growth.
However, the disparities are longstanding and so it would not be surprising if some of the interventions needed are equally so.
Secondly, in terms of distinctiveness, the Commission will explore the potential of an Economic Spatial Framework to help address these inequalities.
To date, across different governments, there has been an essential reliance on the market to address spatial inequalities, with relatively modest spatial interventions.
This is pretty clearly a reliance that has not delivered. Whilst governments cannot direct where and how the private sector develops, it can shape this development through its decisions and actions.
Such spatial frameworks exist in different forms in most of Europe and for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed Scotland is on its third spatial plan, which it sees as the spatial expression of its economic strategy. However, no such plan has been developed for England.
A national economic spatial strategy that in turns links to provincial and local spatial strategies could provide a much needed context for big investment decisions, and be a powerful enabler for devolved decision making at regional level.
It will not be the role of the Commission to produce such a plan – that is for Government.
However, we will lay the foundations for the current or a future government to act on this.
We have consciously chosen the scope of our Commission to include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than just England.
This is so that we can build on, learn from their work in developing economic spatial strategies, and ensure that the key links between the different nations are addressed.
The Commission that has been formed is a very strong one, drawing from local government, business, academia and the policy world.
We are fortunate to have support from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield and University College London, The Sir Hugh and Lady Sykes Charitable Trust and Turner Townsend.
Work is now well underway and the Commission has already held four meetings.
We have published our Prospectus, set up a website and identified a set of Key Questions that we want to address. A Programme of Research has been developed and a Call for Evidence undertaken.
Our timetable is to produce a First Report this spring and we are holding a Symposium in Leeds on the 13th June to discuss it. We will produce a Second Report in September and a Final Report in January 2020.
One of my key ambitions for the Commission is that we challenge the received wisdom and long held assumptions about these inequalities through the use of evidence.
This will help to ensure that future policy is based on a true understanding on the nature and scale of the task.
Our website already has ten very stimulating think pieces, including the one by Professor McCann that I referred to earlier.
We are still in the relatively early stages of thinking through the interventions needed.
However, I am clear in my own mind that much of what we have had to date has been underpowered, peashooter policies, which have not been sustained.
Indeed much of the public investment has worked in the opposite direction. This is not to deny the individual successes of places like Manchester.
However, if we are to really shift the dial on spatial inequalities, what we require for the future will need to be structural, generational, interlocking and at scale.
The interventions involved could be organised around four key themes – investment, devolution, knowledge development, and spatial impact. The ‘how, who, what and where’ if you like. In all this, we can learn a lot from what happened with the unification of West and East Germany.
Let me conclude by saying that I think that the Commission is a brilliant initiative focussed on a vital issue and I feel very fortunate to be chairing it. It will go to the heart of the issue because it will lay out both the scale of the challenge and the scale of the interventions needed to truly tackle it.
It can therefore lay the foundations for the specific projects and initiatives to be delivered over the next two decades.
Please do get involved!