ED MILIBAND, or, as I must call him, putting on my ill-fitting journalist’s hat, Labour leader Ed Miliband, has plans to develop ‘city-regions’ to counter the domination of London in the nation’s affairs.
This, at a cost of £4bn a year, would give reshaped local authorities based around places like Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff and Manchester more powers over transport, housing and employment and, says Labour, lead to the biggest devolution of power from Whitehall in 100 years (and I’m always suspicious of politicians who divide history into 100-year periods to make it easier for the proles to understand – why, if the aim is to be accurate and informative, not say 94 or 107 years? Because it would make the headlines look messy, that’s why).
I can understand the need to redraw local boundaries because the days when people generally both lived and worked in the same area disappeared a century ago, give or take some years. Towns like Harrogate and Ilkley are clearly under the influence of Leeds and planning policies should take this into account.
But I’m still not sure how the Miliband plan would help to change British geography, which at present dictates that all spare British wealth – built by all the efforts of all the workers throughout the land – rolls downhill into the Thames basin and, ultimately, the City of London.
It wasn’t always like this. The late historian AJP Taylor once recalled that his father, a Manchester cotton merchant in the days when cotton was king, travelled the world on cotton business but hardly ever went to London. It simply didn’t count. Similarly, world wool prices used – I think in my lifetime – to be set in Bradford.
When the nation’s wealth was being created in the industrial revolution, London, though an industrious place packed with small factories, didn’t make important things like big ships, textiles, locomotives or cars; that was the job of Miliband’s proposed city-regions.
The question now is whether a few billion quid (peanuts in London terms) and some changes in the regulations will switch things around and make Britain a more united, less London-centred country. And the answer is, probably not.
The problem is that the City of London has sucked us into a world where the entire point of existence is to enrich the rich; where anything which doesn’t enrich the rich can be dismissed, with the help of extravagantly funded right-wing think tanks, as ‘unsustainable’ or ‘socialist’.
Once the City was a kind of weird club of bowler-hatted men who did things which nobody understood (which explains that vague job description ‘something in the City’). People still don’t understand what City-types are up to – and actually they aren’t meant to, because, properly understood, many City activities would be condemned as straight fraud – but the victory of the City over the rest of Britain is complete. The old industries, which gave us our jobs and our pride, are mostly dead and financial services rule.
David Cameron (sorry, Prime Minister David Cameron) has a different suggestion for bridging the gap between London and the rest of us – a high-speed rail link from Leeds and other northern cities to London.
This, it’s said, will allow cutting-edge entrepreneurs to create untold wealth by arriving at business meetings half an hour earlier, even though, had they sensibly used Skype or video conferencing, they wouldn’t have had to set out in the first place.
This isn’t about efficiency, it’s about corporate vanity.