Levelling up from a government that won’t let go of centralised power

Last week Michael Gove, Britain’s cabinet minister for “levelling up”, published a white paper to set out government strategy, building on what had hitherto been not much more than a slogan. It attracted predictable howls of derision, not all of which were deserved. If it is disappointing it is because it presents no real sign of challenge to Britain’s highly centralised political culture.

The good points about the strategy are its ambition, and is aim to make levelling up, or equalising geographic opportunities, a central priority across all government departments. There are two main areas of public criticism. Firstly that there is not much public money attached to the transformation process. Secondly that it advances the idea of political devolution within England only a fraction. I have some sympathy with the government on the first count. It is clear that the problem of regional inequalities has deep causes, and it is not just a question spreading public investment more equally. And yet this all most people want to talk about. We need to move the conversation on. The second criticism is much more pertinent. The Economist suggests that the policy is reminiscent of the Labour government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010: the introduction of regional mayors to provide a new, more local focus for policy coordination, combined with a lot of centrally designed targets and centrally controlled pots of money for local bodies to bid for. Serious devolution would entail local revenue-raising powers, something that is clearly still as much anathema to Whitehall now as it was back then.

I will come back to why I think that matters. But first I want to take issue with the way that government policymakers, and many of those that critique them, like the journalists at The Economist, are thinking about regional development. And that centres around productivity. To them the central problem is low productivity in English regions outside the South East, and Wales – the picture is a bit more complicated in Scotland. By this they mean a concentration of better-paid jobs and profitable businesses in the South East. That is fine as far as it goes, but their suggestion is that this needs to be corrected by making regional businesses more efficient and productive. But what if the main problem is that more productive businesses (i.e. the most profitable ones, or those with best-paid employees) are attracted to the South East. If you improve the productivity of a business in Yorkshire, say, you may find that all that happens is that it moves to near London, or outside the UK altogether, or at least the more profitable elements of it. Often this happens through the business selling out, especially hi-tech businesses.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have huge reservations about the way most economists think about productivity. They are guilty of a fallacy of composition, by assuming that the way you manage an individual business is analogous to the way you run the whole productive side of an economy. This is ironic because economists love to complain that the public suffer from a similar fallacy about household budgets and the national budget. An economy contains a wide variety of businesses with different rates of productivity, as economists measure it. Some are more susceptible to productivity improvement than others. Some are positively inimical to productivity (consider status goods, for example). As productive businesses become yet more productive the resources released tend to move to less productive businesses. This is well-known to economists as the Baumol Effect (or Baumol’s Cost Disease), which doesn’t stop them from ignoring it.

So the key question to me is not why regional businesses are relatively unproductive, but why well-paid jobs tend to gravitate to London and its environs. Political connections are surely part of the answer. Decisions over the allocation of vast public resources are made there, to say nothing of decisions on laws and regulations, and taxes. Physical proximity makes a big difference to the political influence you can wield. That is why countries with more devolved decision-making (my favourite example is Switzerland – but the same applies to Germany) have more equal regional productivity, and why small, independent countries often perform better than non-central regions in large countries. Yorkshire isn’t physically or culturally very far from Denmark or the Netherlands after all, but income per head does not bear comparison. The Irish Republic has overtaken the initially more developed Northern Ireland. The government’s proposed reforms will do very little to change London’s gravitational pull. Regional politicians still will have to travel there to bid for the new funds on offer, employing London consultants to hone their bids to match the fashionable ideas and buzz words that hold sway there.

Still, that can’t be everything. The British regions have suffered enormously from the collapse of old industries, devastated by the march of technology and globalisation. There may be interventions that can push back against this tide. Universities are amongst the few bright spots of regional development. The South East has very strong universities, especially if you include Oxford and Cambridge, which are on the edge of the Midlands, but no monopoly. Perhaps more regional centres can be established for medical research, surely a promising avenue for the country, based on these universities and local NHS institutions. Better intra-regional transport would surely help. Better transport links to London, on the other hand, are more ambiguous in their impact. But such initiatives would be easier to get off the ground if local leaders were not constantly having to appeal to London for permission to proceed, but something could still be done.

An interesting question is whether the green economy can be used to promote regional development. Renewable energy has a strong regional element, but its impact on jobs looks quite limited, especially compared to the old fossil fuel industries. Can a change in focus in agriculture, to turn the land into a carbon sink, generate a healthier rural economy? This must surely be a critical part of any zero carbon strategy. This is interesting because it might entail a reversal of agricultural productivity, as conventionally measured anyway, as some of the interventions could be more labour intensive. Agricultural productivity has always been a prime driver of economic development, as workers are released from the land to work in factories. But we are now appreciating its huge hidden costs. There would be a rather wonderful symmetry if the development of a more sustainable post-industrial economy involved reducing nominal agricultural productivity. It is not incompatible with improving wellbeing, though attitudes to the consumption of “stuff” and, indeed, meat, would have to change. It entails placing a financial value on environmental assets.

Such ideas seem far away from current government thinking, though some ideas on agricultural finance are starting to move in that direction, and have also been promoted by Mr Gove. It is one of the few positive possibilities arising from Brexit, as agricultural reform in the EU proceeds at a snail’s pace.

Meanwhile some good-old fashioned “levelling-down” should not be ruled out. This means taxing excess wealth and high incomes harder, and using this to make investments in regional infrastructure. That, at least, is something Britain’s highly centralised government infrastructure is well-designed for.