I have just spent the last few days in London attending my son and daughter-in-law’s wonderful wedding. But that’s another story.
As a traveled but die-hard Yorkshireman I have spent plenty of time visiting London over the last forty or so years of my business life. We knew back then that London was never England, it always exuded the magical allure of a capital city. The place where it all happened – Government, fashion, the arts while the rest of GB got on making the real money producing stuff and writing gritty dramas about life down the pit and on the loom. Over the last few decades that gap has become a chasm. Boris Johnson talks of London as being a ‘world city’ and he is correct. There’s now nowhere else in GB that comes a country mile near it. The last vestiges of wealth and grandeur of past centres like Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow have finally disappeared to re-emerge as industrial museum pieces. I sometimes feel that maybe I should have brought my passport so different does London now seem in comparison to the rest of our once great and more balanced nation.
Suddenly recognising there were important voters up’t North, George Osborne started to woo us northerners ahead of the last general election. There were enticing promises of more power and money to create a ‘northern powerhouse’. About time. While northern manufacturing dried up post Thatcher, so did the sleeping financial service giants of London emerge as fast as traditional northern and other industrial centres went down the plug hole. We liked the sound of the recent promises but what did we hear only a few days ago: the money allocated to upgrade our shameful Northern 3rd world train services has now been ‘delayed’, ‘postponed’ ‘paused’ or some similar euphemism that means in reality, it ain’t happening. Think ahead another decade. More promises, no delivery. We’ll wait and see what Mr. Osborne pulls out of his northern hat tomorrow in his special budget announcement.
Meanwhile back in Money City, investment can be found for the massive cross rail programme, docklands light railway expansion, new tube lines and station expansions for both tube and national rail; everywhere I traveled in the old east end of London I witness transformation at every turn: cranes, conversions, new apartments, housing, offices, construction workers toiling 24/7. This activity is only driven by the lure of London as a destination to invest, work and live – old east end dwellers are being driven further and further out of the city as investors and city workers pile in behind them creating another, unimaginable property bubble. It is difficult to imagine but there is currently very little available office accommodation in the City of London.
Take a visit away from this hot-house environment to the provinces and you’ll see a different picture – try Middlesborough, Portsmouth, Glasgow, Newport South Wales and I could go on listing cities and towns that are barely hanging on in. Many smaller rural towns have a subsistence economy. Poor infrastructure, lack of investment and shoddy half-cock building projects – the centre of Bradford has been a redundant building site for the last 10 years because of lack of investment by both private and public sector sources of funding.
It is unlikely that the gap will ever be filled; organisations and institutions will not decamp London until there are compelling reasons to go elsewhere. Landmark redeployment can make small differences. The BBC’s move to Salford has transformed Media City and sucked in complimentary businesses. But it’s a drop in the ocean. You need 1st rate infrastructure, communications, housing, education, the arts and social amenities available on a grand scale. Tokenism is not enough, it needs radical planning and massive investment away from the centre to stop London becoming more and more like a country in its own right. Meanwhile the provincial city lights fade ever dimmer far, far away.