An ex Civil Servant’s Take on Owen Jones’ “The north-south divide is a myth & a distraction!” #GE2015


I rarely have sufficient time to read all the interesting pieces on The Guardian Comment is free website. I do not have to go to the site to know I am missing so much. People in my Twitter timeline regularly Tweet links to interesting articles, along with material of similar quality on other sites.

I have today, at Owen Jones’ urging on Twitter, taken time to look at his piece entitled, “The north-south divide is a myth – and a distraction”. Where I sometimes take issue with such pieces is the lack of solid evidence used to back up an individual’s assertions. Comment may be free, but facts are so sacred that it often seems that they must be kept hidden, well away from public gaze.

I rarely bother to read Simon Jenkins’ fact free pieces for that reason. Mr Jenkins makes a virtue of his ignorance about a lot of the topics about which he writes. His ignorance, for example, of the potential benefits and disbenefits of wind power makes his views, in his opinion more objective than the views of professionals in the renewable energy field, because, by implication they are biased. I trust he will never take the same attitude to a surgeon trying to replace one of his hips!

At the other end of the spectrum is Polly Toynbee. Ms Toynbee regularly supports her arguments with evidence she has taken the trouble to find out for herself. I remember how impressed colleagues and friends were, when Ms Toynbee wrote a piece about Labour’s New Deal for Young People in 1998. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

Why impressed? Ms Toynbee had taken the time to sit in on New Deal interviews taking place in Jobcentres, with the consent of both parties, of course. The need for such consent helped ensure that not just the official line was heard. Mind you, attempting the latter is like herding cats. Both parties will more often than not go off piste. I ought to know, I used to arrange such encounters for DWP and its predecessors.

Before I go any further, perhaps I should introduce myself? I was, until last December, an unelected politician. I had been a member of the Home Civil Service for over 27 years. I was accused recently, by a supporter of UKIP, of fabricating most of my experiences in public service and much of the data I was citing in aid of my arguments that UKIP policies would be a disaster for those on low incomes. If you feel you need to seek my references, ask around on Twitter, particularly amongst people on my Followers’ list.

I now turn to providing evidence to support Owen Jones’ case which would not have fitted in the normal length of a Comment is free piece. I hasten to add that I think Owen is at the Toynbee end of my evidence scale. Let me introduce you to two areas in England, using only data freely available on NOMIS:

Area A (figures as at August 2013)

Percentage of resident population claiming:

Jobseeker’s Allowance = 6.4.
Employment and Support Allowance & Incapacity Benefit = 7.4
Lone Parents = 2.1
Carers = 2.0
Others on income related benefits = 0.5
Disabled = 1.4
Bereaved = 0.2

Area B (figures as at August 2013)

Percentage of resident population claiming:

Jobseeker’s Allowance = 4.4
Employment and Support Allowance & Incapacity Benefit = 9.9
Lone Parents = 1.9
Carers = 1.8
Others on income related benefits = 0.6
Disabled = 1.5
Bereaved = 0.2

Great Britain (figures as at August 2013)

Percentage of resident population claiming:

Jobseeker’s Allowance = 3.2
Employment and Support Allowance & Incapacity Benefit = 6.1
Lone Parents = 1.3
Carers = 1.3
Others on income related benefits = 0.4
Disabled = 1.2
Bereaved = 0.2

Area A is Birmingham and B is Hastings. There are more detailed Deprivation Statistics that would underline the similarities between the Second City of the UK (by population size) and a seaside town on the South Coast (from which my maternal grandfather hailed and from which he moved to find work here in Birmingham in the 1940s).

Within the Sutton Coldfield Parliamentary Constituency of Birmingham, the Tory fiefdom of one Andrew Mitchell MP, there is an area known as Falcon Lodge. Falcon Lodge is an area of great deprivation within one of the most affluent areas outside of London and the South East. There were once 12 Tory Councillors representing the four Wards that make up the constituency, the bedrock of the Tory Party on Birmingham City Council; the largest unitary authority in the UK, bar none. But times do change, even under the current Labour Party leadership.

There was a political earthquake in the Ward of Sutton Vesey in 2012. For the first time in living memory, a Labour Councillor was returned for a Ward within the Sutton Coldfield Constituency. Sorry Owen, but the tremors from this earthquake do not seem to have even rattled teacups amongst the London-centric Establishment.

For a personal perspective on deprivation in London, Mr Jones could have prayed in aid the work of Major Clement Attlee (a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front). Yes, the Attlee, who as leader of the Labour Party was the Prime Minister for the Home Front in a real Coalition Government. The Attlee, who was a graduate of Haileybury and University College, Oxford, but who gave up becoming a barrister to take a job as a social worker in the East End of London. Leaders of the Labour Party or any political party do not have to have been born into the working class to understand the issues that face the masses rather than the classes (copyright, William Ewart Gladstone).

It is, indeed, a brave person who fails to recognise that there are pockets of deprivation even within the most prosperous areas of the UK. Kent may be the Garden of England, but the Thanet area of the county, another Tory fiefdom, has high levels of hidden deprivation.

Where I part company somewhat with Mr Jones and most certainly with John Denham is the idea that there is not a real North/South Divide geographically alongside deprivation within affluent areas. Let me return to Birmingham for a moment, three out of the top ten constituencies with the highest levels of unemployment within the UK in March 2014 were:

Birmingham, Ladywood (1st)

Birmingham, Hodge Hill (5th)

Birmingham, Erdington (10th)

Out of the top ten, none were south of Watford. Out of the top twenty, only one, Tottenham (16th) was south of Watford. At number 15 is Birmingham, Perry Barr, taking the total of Birmingham seats in the top 20 up to 4. A few years back, it was said that Birmingham, Ladywood had the greatest income gap of any constituency in the UK; men in hostels on social security at the bottom and professionals footballers and lap dancers at the top.

The current Coalition Government has broken with a UK tradition of regional policy dating all the way back to at least the passing of the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act. An Act that recognised, for the sake of equity alone, that something had to be done to make Parliament more representative of population growth outside of southern England, including Cornwall.

Returning to Mr Attlee, it was in 1947 that the Town and Country Planning Act launched the New Towns, Whitehall’s chosen vehicle for 30 years for easing inner city problems by removing work and the workforce to greenfield areas. Let us travel further back in time to Neville Chamberlain and his Special Areas Act of 1934. As an aside the Jaguar Land Rover factory in the Erdington Constituency of Birmingham sits on the foundations of a Shadow Factory built with Government money, on the understanding that it would be available to be turned over to war production, if so required. It seems someone before 1939 was preparing for war.

Further back in time, the Welfare State was ushered into being through the efforts of Winston Spencer Churchill (whatever happened to the party of which he became leader?) and David Lloyd George (and whatever became of the Liberals?). Aside from introducing the State Pension (known for decades after as the Lloyd George), this duo oversaw the establishment of unemployment insurance and the Labour Exchange network (created by one William Beveridge). Unemployment insurance was expected to help, in particular, the seasonally unemployed; the occurrence of the seasons varying from industry to industry and from location to location.

I served two tours of duty at Washwood Heath Jobcentre in East Birmingham; the last Jobcentre on the site of a former Labour Exchange in the city. Unlike, say Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith, I spoke with thousands of people looking for work in the most deprived areas of Birmingham. It was a time when people still expected to get a hand up, not a slap down at the Jobcentre.

I daily expect to hear that DLG has spun out of his grave and fallen into the River Dwyfor in disgust at the antics of Calamity Clegg. For example, Mr Clegg avers that John Hemming MP is an heir of DLG. The latter, were he alive today, might be banned from going on Mumsnet to flirt, but not surely not from abusing its users?

It was DLG who first coined the phrase, “placing burdens on the broadest shoulders” during his speech on the evening of 30th July, 1909. DLG, fulfilling a promise made a month earlier, addressed an audience of 4,000 at the Edinburgh Castle in Limehouse, one of the poorest areas of the East End of London. There he delivered not the best, but the most famous and possibly most effective speech of his life. DLG stood foursquare with the masses in their seemingly eternal struggle with the classes:

“We are placing burdens on the broadest shoulders. Why should I put burdens on the people? I am one of the children of the people. I was brought up amongst them. I know their trials; and God forbid that I should add one grain of trouble to the anxieties which they bear with such patience and fortitude. When the Prime Minister did me the honour of inviting me to take charge of the National Exchequer at a time of great difficulty, I made up my mind, in framing the Budget which was in front of me, that at any rate no cupboard should be barer, no lot would be harder. By that test I challenge them to judge the Budget.”

DLG had previously travelled north to Birmingham on 18th December 1901, that formidable redoubt of political support for Joseph Chamberlain. DLG bravely, but almost fatally delivered a speech in the Town Hall here, opposing the Boer War of which Chamberlain was such an adamant supporter. The same Joseph Chamberlain who showed what Municipal Socialism could deliver for the masses. Real local government in fact, regional policy in embryo.

As an aside, if you are ever close to Llanystumdwy, I recommend a visit to the home and museum dedicated to UK’s answer to Barack Obama, afore that gentleman ever ‘snuck’ into the United States of America via Hawaii. The sun shines more often than not in that part of the world and it is a beautiful spot to visit. Alas, in the museum, the sun briefly disappears behind the clouds as one contemplates the classes, red in tooth and claw, and in the shape of the Tory Party condemning each and every move to improve the condition of the masses. Opposition that was particularly nasty during the Liberal Government of 1906 to 1914 and during the 1920s and 1930s. If you read or watch the Tory and Tory Democrat speeches delivered during the WOW debate on Thursday 27th February, you might think yourself back in the Chamber of the House of Commons in the first half of the 20th Century.

From 1832 onwards, Government economic and social policy across the political spectrum evolved in line with a growing recognition that the Night Watchman State (sorry, UKIP et al) was incompatible with democratic politics. Arguably, Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 and the Repeal of the Corn Laws were milestones in that evolution along with Health and Safety legislation (sorry, Jeremy, but it is as British as bacon and egg), early consumer protection laws, the railway acts and similar. Much of the legislation passed contained significant regional elements. It was the age when local government developed its social conscience whilst growing in power and prestige. Those glory days before London-centrism turned on the regions and cities, mimicking the Court of Louis XIV. To be banished from Louis’ court was to be thrust into the outer darkness. Sorry, Owen, but too often it feels like that, out here in the boondocks.

And here, I return to the present day, I was involved, with more senior Jobcentre Plus colleagues in a recording for File on Four about the impact of the credit crunch on Birmingham. The reporter recorded his introduction to our segment, whilst we sat quietly by. When he had finished, we collectively lost our tempers and went for his throat. He had described the Birmingham of the Thatcher years, an industrial wasteland. Do not get me wrong, there is still much to do to socially and economically regenerate Birmingham, but the reporter had passed the shiny, new Queen Elizabeth Hospital on his way to the Jobcentre where the recording was being made.

When we let the chap have a word in edgeways, he said he knew Birmingham today was not how he had described it, but it was what Radio Four listeners expected to hear! By the way, it takes a lot for media trained civil servants to lose their cool with reporters. We usually go ape, after they have just left us and ballistic when we hear how they have put our comments into their reports. I do need to say at this point that not all reporters behave this way, but enough to give the impression that it is still really grim oop north (of Watford).

I am afraid, Owen, that many of us, north and west of the M25 Beltway (a term straight out of The West Wing) feel that what London, in particular wants, is what London gets. For example, the Coalition Government scrapped the English Regional Development Agencies and confiscated their capital assets during its ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’. ‘Twinkly eyed Uncle’ Vince Cable said we might have our assets back, but only if we were willing to pay top dollar for them. Meanwhile, in London, that ‘cheeky chappie’, Boris Johnson got the keys to the London Development Agency and all its capital assets for nothing.

The RDAs by their very nature were focusing a big chunk of their efforts on areas of deprivation, both rural and urban. Advantage West Midlands, with whom I worked closely for most of its existence, set up six Regeneration Zones, covering the majority of the deprived areas of our region. I was loaned by Jobcentre Plus to the East Birmingham and North Solihull Regeneration Zone to lead on Employment Development. One of our policies, which was an extension of AWM policy across the region, was to look at ways to encourage growth within the burgeoning environmental business sector.

Westminster and Whitehall may talk the talk about the environmental business sector, but we were walking the work, designing locally initiatives to meet local circumstances. The circle began to be squared. And therein, lies the rub. The Coalition Government and most of the London-centric Establishment seem uninterested in governing in the interest of all or of conceding subsidiarity within the UK. They back the classes against the masses and the classes predominantly live in London and the South East. Who would London know, that only London knows, to misquote that chap from the West Midlands.

I will refrain from reeling off a list of statistics that backs up the perception that we, beyond the M25 Beltway, have of how private and public expenditure and investment are concentrated in London and the South East. I will merely observe that the City of London is in London and that business, government departments and voluntary and community sector bodies rarely have their head offices outside of London.

Will the Co-Op Bank retain its Head Office at 1, Balloon Street, Manchester, M60 4EP or will it now, like The Manchester Guardian did, head south to The Smoke? The days of trying to move Government to addresses outside of London ended in May 2010. The Manpower Services Commission, that tri-partite body with echoes of Butskellism, is now a fading memory, its head office in Sheffield long ago absorbed into one of DWP’s predecessor bodies.

London-centrism is re-enforced by the clubby nature of its members, very much the same schools attended, often only graduating from one or other of the two universities. Oxbridge dominates the club and the hinterland of the UK seems to have almost become as alien to it as when the 19th Century poets braved the vicissitudes of Cumbria. Tis not for nothing that they became known as the Lakeland Poets.

It used to be said that fog in the Channel meant that Europe was cut off. These days, bad weather, heavy traffic on the M25, a strike on the Underground … means to most of the media that the rest of the UK is cut off. Admittedly, there was concern about the flooding in the West of England earlier this year, but then, there are lots of holiday homes there, cheek by jowl with some of the worst deprivation in the UK, period. Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but is London-centrism that occurs by mistake any better than that born of deliberate policy? Either way, resentment grows, the further north and west you go.

Now for the coup de grâce, the controversial matter of high speed rail. It used to be said that the Great Western Railway was a West Country railway with a London terminus. The GWR was a company set up by Bristol merchants to build a railway line from Bristol to London. Their line was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the son of a French émigré (these pesky foreigners get everywhere, eh, UKIP?) and built by a lot of working class navvies, many of them from Ireland. The chaps that DLG, over 80 years later would say had earned the right to a greater share in the wealth of the nation, not by birth, but by industry. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

I was broadly in favour of High Speed 2, I have now become agnostic and, if certain aspects of the project remain unchanged then I will reluctantly move into the No Camp. Let us travel back in time to the last quarter of the 19th Century and meet a real (Victorian) entrepreneur, Sir Edward Watkin. He had a vision, an ambitious plan to develop a railway network which could run passenger trains directly from Liverpool and Manchester to Paris, crossing from Britain to France via a tunnel under the English Channel. As well as a high-speed specification, the Great Central Main Line was also built to an expanded continental loading gauge; unlike any other railway lines in Britain, Watkin’s line would be able to accommodate larger-sized continental trains crossing from France.

Watkin started his tunnel works with the South Eastern Railway in 1880-81. Digging began at Shakespeare Cliff between Folkestone and Dover and reached a length of 2,020 yards (1,850 m). The project was highly controversial and fears grew of the tunnel being used as a route for a possible French invasion of Great Britain; notable opponents of the project were the War Office Scientific Committee, Lord Wolseley and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge; Queen Victoria reportedly found the tunnel scheme “objectionable”. Watkin was skilled at public relations and attempted to garner political support for his project, inviting such high-profile guests as the Prince and Princess of Wales, Liberal Party Leader William Gladstone and the Archbishop of Canterbury to submarine champagne receptions in the tunnel. In spite of his attempts at winning support, his tunnel project was blocked by Parliament and cancelled in the interests of national security. Little England beat the rest of the UK, the start of a trend?

Sir Edward was for many years a Liberal Member of Parliament. His GCR was the only railway in the country to refer to the line running in the direction of London as the down line. One went down to London by GCR, not up as was (and is) the case on every other line in the UK. The alignment of the GCR, running north from St Pancras still exists and, like King Arthur on Avalon, slumbers, waiting …

Of course, using a pre-existing alignment as the basis for HS2 would reduce the overall cost of the project and its associated risks. It would also reduce the bonanza that many of its backers expect to make through fees, construction contracts, land speculation etc. What has this got to do with London-centrism? Well, where do all those who, expect to make a killing out of HS2, dwell?

For now, sticking with the proposed route, there is the small matter of Euston, the HS2/HS1 link line, Camden, St Pancras, Stratford International, rail freight, sleeping cars and Paris:

HS1 as currently planned will involve a big investment in upgrading Euston, which includes a retail development

According to Sir David Higgins and his review, a HS1/HS2 link line is a luxury that at £700 million is one we cannot afford

The residents of Camden have been awarded the right of veto over the HS1/HS2 link line

The logic of HS2 services terminating at St Pancras, with cross platform inter-change with HS1 goes unremarked

Stratford International, despite its excellent transport links with the rest of London, courtesy of the 2012 Olympics, is under-utilised

The contention that rail freight would not benefit from using HS2 and HS1 to reach mainland Europe more speedily than it now does

There are no plans to introduce sleeping car services utilising HS1 and HS2 to destinations in mainland Europe

Services from Birmingham to Paris and vice versa, travelling via HS2 and HS1 in around three hours. Collapse of stout parties amongst the London-centrists.

My riposte:

Let us save money by running HS2 services into St Pancras and running HS2 train units into the HS1 maintenance depot at Old Oak Common, thereby reducing the cost of HS2 by a lot more than the savings accruing from not building the link line

Why was it necessary to have undertaken his review? The Treasury Green Book appraisal process demands that issues of risk, such as cost over runs are addressed and that, where appropriate contingency is made for a project to be scaled down

By what process have the residents of Camden (sorry, Camden) earnt the right to veto part of the HS2 route? No one else on the proposed alignment has been granted such a power

Those of us from outside the Beltway do not want to share the pain of London travellers on the Underground. We are quite happy to step across a platform at St Pancras, if we must

HS2 could, if the link line were built, bypass St Pancras, stop at Stratford International (to increase the return on the taxpayers’ investment there) and then proceed on to Paris. Who knows we might reduce travel by air, in the process

JLR sends most of its cars abroad via snail rail, HS1 and the Channel Tunnel. How much more of our export traffic might go that way, if HS2 were built? There is plenty of land hard by the JLR plant that could be turned into a combined railhead and business park, sitting on the boundary between Birmingham Erdington and Birmingham Hodge Hill (see above)

Despite the sleeping cars having actually been built for HS1 (and then sold off on the nationalisation of the route by Mrs Thatcher), there are no current plans to introduce sleepers services, using HS2 and HS1 to travel to destinations in mainland Europe. What has changed since HS1?

I cannot see the point of getting from Birmingham to London or vice versa 20 minutes quicker than today. I can see the point of a city that has an (Inter)National Exhibition Centre, an International Convention Centre and an (Inter)National Indoor Arena being directly connected with Europe’s High Speed Rail network via HS2 and HS1.

HS2 is coming across more and more as a project designed in London, by London for London’s benefit. The social, environmental and economic costs of the project are being shared out, though, right across the UK. As an aside, why does the route need to start being built at the London end?

Birmingham’s HS2 terminal will be a dead end with no cross platform connections with services using the hub of the UK’s inter-city network, Birmingham New Street. Imagine, if you will, an academic from Aberystwyth University, boarding a train at Aberystwyth, changing trains in Birmingham and finally detraining in Paris, all within around six hours. In DLG’s day it would have taken him around that time to travel from London to Criccieth.

I have referenced UKIP a number of times above. Effective regional policy would weaken its support by addressing the problems caused by deprivation that the party cynically exploits. We will not be able to address the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia et al amongst UKIP’s supporters until we drain the swamp, containing those alligators, of the water of deprivation.

In conclusion, I agree with Owen Jones, there is not just a North/South divide in geographical terms. The data proves that. But what the Coalition has done since May 2010 is skewed the balance ever more in favour of the classes, who predominantly live in London and the South East. Politicians, the media and all those who make up the London-centric Establishment will never be able to shake off the charge that they are out of touch with the masses, until the balance, particularly of decision making and control of resources starts to swing back the other way. For heaven’s sake, the likes of Nick Robinson only have to leave the Westminster Bubble and go to the East End of London, as Owen observes to learn that the Cost of Living Crisis is alive and well!

There are some encouraging signs that Ed Miliband gets that, whether it is handing the Work Programme budget down to local areas (shades of the New Deal in 1997); his proposals for those renting in the private sector or devolving more power from Whitehall down to the lowest practicable level. Andy Burnham also speaks of the love that dare not speaks its name; empowerment within the NHS, with just a hint of Total Quality Management, which should produce savings not cuts in public services.

Ultimately, we will not marginalise the extremes of the Right or Left, until we recognise, once again, that one size policies do not fit all, whether geographically, socially or economically. We began to realise that in 1832 and it is as true today as it was then. Time, perhaps, for us to return to traditional policies in a modern setting, addressing the needs of the masses, not the classes?