In Conversation with: Prof Philip McCann, Author of 'The UK Regional-National Economic Problem'
Today I was fortunate enough to talk with Prof. Philip McCann, Chair in Urban and Regional Economics at the University of Sheffield whilst he was in Cambridge.
Prof. McCann (a former member of St Edmund's College which I am also affiliated with) shed light on his most recent book entitled 'The UK Regional-National Economic Problem' which analyses the growing inequalities across the United Kingdom, particularly within England, and covers many of the topics which will underline my thesis argument for moving Parliament and government offices out of London.
I started the discussion by summarizing my project to date which brought us on to the topic of devolution and in particularly the legacy and future of the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Philip believed that although not many things have come out of this explicitly, 'Transport for the North (which has in the past 12 months been granted statutory body status) has been an indirect product of the agenda'. Philip expressed the importance of TfN demonstrating their purpose as the statutory body status is for a fixed period of only two or three years and discussed how much more difficult it will be to create a coherent framework for transport across the north in comparison to London due to the complexity and diversity in transport modes.
"the Government doesn't know what to do in the regions and there is no incentive in the center to change the system as this would mean reducing the territory and power of department ministers"
This then led us on to discuss the issue of rebalancing, specifically in regards to the economy. Philip informs me that the huge inequalities in the UK are the biggest in the industrialised world and are over tiny distances. He mentions that when discussing this with Americans he tells them to 'imagine Mississippi and Alabama literally next door to Connecticut and Massachusetts'. He believes that this economic reality is mismatched with a governance system in the UK which is (despite recent talks about place-based and Northern Powerhouse) hyper-centralised, place-blind and top-down. From experience Philip says that he believes the Government doesn't know what to do in the regions and there is no incentive in the center to change the system as this would mean reducing the territory and power of department ministers. Philip describes this as a 'disincentive effect for anyone who is not at the core of the activity' in places such as London or Cambridge as when the centre rolls out a policy telling local stakeholders in the regions what to do, they don't see the point in doing it because it has been designed by the centre for the centre.
This led us on to the importance of the 'national' view of the UK not actually being 'national' but 'regional'. Philip argues that you could replace the word 'national', 'Great Britain' or 'UK' in most press with the word London and it would still make sense. If you did the same with the word 'Sunderland' or 'Blackburn', he argues, it would seem like nonsense. He believes that the 'national' view is one which is created in London by policy makers which then results in a lack of engagement from many places across the UK as the policy simply doesn't apply or work in the same way for them as it would in London.
"It's a complicated mess but the issue is quite simple - how would it change the underlying institutional social capital, governance in the broad sense and the engagement of civil society?"
Finally we moved on to discuss what would need to change to start to close the gap in regional inequalities. Philip believes that it all comes down to an understanding of the heterogeneity of the country and how it works. He believes that a temporary move of Parliament for at least five years could begin to action this. He argues that 'by moving you would be changing the fundamental nature of self-perception. The issue is really about whether this would contribute to an understanding of the realities facing the rest of the country - my guess is yes... It's a complicated mess but the issue is quite simple - how would it change the underlying institutional social capital, governance in the broad sense and the engagement of civil society? If government did move, think tanks would also move or open offices nearby which would then feed into special advisers who would start to take on board those changes.'