00Introduction and summary
There are major regional inequalities in the UK today and the Government has committed itself to levelling up the wealth of the poorer regions. But it should not be thought that this will be easy to do as regional policy in the UK in the last 90 years has achieved very little. Nor will the spending of large sums of money on projects in the poorer regions increase their wealth long-term if it is not targeted on creating more innovative, high value-added per capita jobs and firms in those regions.
The main reason why regional policy in the past has been ineffective is that we have not had in the UK a regional level of government that could provide the necessary leadership for regional regeneration. The development, however, of Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) in recent years now provides the Government with an opportunity to develop a new effective set of regional economic development policies that would level up the poorer economic regions, and contribute to increasing the UK’s rate of economic growth.
In view of the Government’s commitment to levelling up the regions of the country, and the fact that the Centre for Cities has done a large amount of work on the economy of cities, I thought it would be valuable to put together their research with some relevant research done by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation at Cambridge University, to produce an effective policy document. This I have done in the following pages, and I would like to thank the Centre for Cities for all the help they have given in the preparation of this document.
The basic premise of this document is that the best way, based on the experience of other countries, to increase the wealth of poorer regions is to support the growth of existing or potential clusters of high value-added businesses in them. These can be either manufacturing or service businesses, but they must be ones that have a competitive advantage in global markets. And the support must be co-ordinated by regional bodies such as the MCAs and not by the central government.
If, however, MCAs are going to be able to co-ordinate the support for high value-added clusters within their boundaries, two important organisational changes need to be made, and also some of the Government’s R&D budget needs to be allocated on a regional basis.
The first of the organisational changes is to give the Mayors of combined authorities the clear responsibility for spatial planning and transport policy in their cities. This would bring them in line with the organisation of the Greater London Authority, and would involve moving some spatial powers up from local authorities that make up the MCAs, and moving some transport powers down from Whitehall.
This would be a significant change, but bringing together spatial planning and transport planning together at the Mayoral level would seem to be a very obvious way both to improve the management of our cities, and to create a favourable environment for all businesses within them.
The second change would be to give MCAs the power to align the courses run by further education (FE) colleges within their boundaries with the needs of industry. At the current time, the way that FE colleges are funded means that, in order to survive financially, many must spend a great deal of time competing to attract students to those courses that are cheap to run. By giving the MCAs the authority to co-ordinate the courses put on by FE colleges, and by incentivising collaboration between colleges rather than competition, this could be stopped, and the courses delivered could be brought in line with the needs of industry.
Finally, for mainly historical reasons the R&D spending of the Government is heavily concentrated on centres of excellence in the South of the country, and if the growth of high value-added businesses in the poorer regions is to be encouraged, a proportion of it should be targeted at the poorer regions. This should not be difficult to do as it can be achieved by strengthening and altering the recently introduced Strength in Places Fund.
As well as giving more powers to the MCAs, it will also be necessary for the Government to co-ordinate its own actions more effectively, and make one government department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the lead department for levelling up. It is also suggested that a National Council for Innovation is set up to see that the regional economic growth programme is closely connected with the other work of government on economic growth.
These changes would be extremely significant ones and would enable the Mayors to play a much more important role in growing the wealth of their cities, while enabling the Government to maintain overall control over the nation’s policies and finances.