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Last modified: 16 January 2017

Imagination not needed: liberal policies that work for more of the UK already exist.

The first of three blogs. I will add links in the coming weeks.

Recently Gavin Kelly wrote about the need for solutions to — not just complaints about — the struggles faced by those “left behind” by globalisation. It’s a good and well-needed piece.

I read it in on a slow journey home to Birmingham from Leeds and it seemed apt that just as we stopped in Barnsley I read that “imaginative work on the future policy landscape is sorely needed”.

I remember where I was because I read that line, read it again, and then thought about how much I’d need to drink in Sheffield to calm down. It’s a reasonable enough thought the first dozen times, but I’ve heard it so often that I hate it.

We don’t need imaginative work on the future policy landscape. We need the opposite. We need to do less imagining and do more of the things that we know will work.

Let us compete, and we will win

Just as Dublin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Munich, Lyon, and Barcelona compete and collaborate with London to everyone’s benefit, so should Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds. In a fair fight I’ll take my chances against the best in the capital.

But the truth is that we’re not allowed a fair fight. I zoom towards and around London on hugely expensive transport systems built for and paid for by the UK state. But in Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds I sit in delayed buses in the absence of any comparable historical investment. To add salt to the wounds almost all local ambition to improve public transport is kept illegal by laws made in London which cities cannot change and from which London is exempt.

And then when I arrive at meetings in London they’re often held in state-funded venues and national institutions. And I’m meeting people who are almost always paid by, or paid to influence, or paid by someone who’s paid by, the UK government. My meetings in Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds are led by and paid for by private businesses or a local government that has been cut while the centre has been protected.

What productivity puzzle?

Every day I live the productivity gap that experts in London try to understand and declare a puzzle. I was trained at great expense in the finest universities in Europe. I hoped to do one of the biotechnology jobs that were created here and until recently still existed in North England. But by the time I graduated they had mostly moved to Cambridge and London to chase state subsidies. The data on UK state investment in research & development is clear on this. That I had to find the data and show it myself should be embarrassing to the experts puzzling over productivity.

So, like many in Leeds, I created my own job so that I could stay here. Today I run the kind of small business that creates few jobs, pays little tax, and generates little growth. And in my own tiny niche, I have achieved a decent amount. I have a stable business model, part of which is ironically supplying better data analysis to national decision makers to explain my own underperformance.

But still, with frightening frequency, I see the state prop up and promote my sloppy and uncreative competitors in London and take a special cut of my income on jobs routed via the centre while giving little in return. I see them concentrate the infrastructure, culture, and talent of this country in a tiny corner of our island which refuses to grow and rarely acknowledges the special treatment it enjoys.

I see experts and thinkers with strong personal networks, shoddy knowledge and big salaries propose solutions to problems that they don’t understand or that aren’t relevant to anywhere without a tube station. They bump into people in Whitehall, pick up some good ideas at the Royal Society, stumble upon a masterplan at the Future Cities Catapult, and talk it through with their friends at the Times, at a think-tank event organised in Westminster Hall to discuss the Northern Powerhouse and inclusive growth.

Many people like me are ignored. But increasingly I am asked to join in. I’m invited to London, at my own expense, to steer policy or feed into consultations. I’m so often the person invited to be imaginative, for free, in my own time, despite being very clear that imagination is not what we’ve been lacking.

We know what we need to do but the people who could let that happen don’t want to. In my next blog I’ll explain why. And I’ll explain how I try and play a tiny role in fixing that. In my last I give specific examples of what we should do.

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