Begging for Change

Sir Peter Hall, Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration at University College London, wrote this week about ‘the Games’ that “despite the torch-bearing preliminaries across the land, and apart from Olympic and Paralympic events that were scattered around south-east England, this was a London event and a London triumph.”

“This,” he continued, “can only intensify the division, familiar from the daily drip-feed of news items, between London and its wider South East hinterland, and the rest of the national economy. Two recent samples: house prices are falling everywhere, except in London; and the world’s top ten universities include four from the UK – two in London, plus Oxford and Cambridge. As Boris Johnson is fond of saying, London’s global pre-eminence isn’t simply based on the bankers: the city also includes top universities, top hospitals, top TV producers, top theatre, top almost everything in every league.”

Sir Peter’s conclusion? “It doesn’t have to be that way. Berlin is the capital of Germany, but is far from its most successful city. Germany is the land of great provincial cities: larger ones such as Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, and smaller ones like Freiburg. But to achieve that in the UK, you need to rescue the dreaded r-word from the dustbin, and reconstruct the national economy around strong regions, which no British government has dared seriously to contemplate.”

The implication seems to be that if only we had a British government that would “dare” seriously contemplate the demotion of London then all would be well. Indeed it would. London didn’t get where it is today by its own efforts. It got there by using, across ten centuries, the spending power of the taxpayer-funded institutions of a certain unitary state whose capital it happens to be. Those are institutions it has learned how to manipulate to maintain that position.  And having done so, it has gone on to create a climate of public opinion that defers to their role in arbitrating what can and cannot be done locally and regionally.  To hear the great and the good pontificate on a lack of talent in the provinces to trust with decision-making does beg the question of who is qualified to judge talent and why.

The reason why Germany is more to Sir Peter Hall’s liking is that its development was not directed from the capital but by a strong tradition of provincial self-rule. So expecting the British government seriously to contemplate what it has never seriously contemplated before is the triumph of hope over experience. It won’t happen. Power isn’t surrendered; it is taken.

That is why those who call upon the London regime to mend its ways, or who suggest we should work within the Labour Party to put some backbone into its regional policy, are bound to be disappointed. We have no true allies on the inside. The only sure way forward is to build the world we wish to see from the bottom up. Working to strengthen our coherence as a region. Learning from other historic regions and small nations with whom we stand in solidarity. Wishing the London regime as much ill-will as it visits upon us. You don’t have to be a separatist to recognise that nothing succeeds like secession.