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Last modified: 16 January 2017

Imagination not needed: what’s stopping us?

Part two of three. Part one is here.

We know what we need to do. We’re pretty sure it would work. And yet we have never tried to do it.

Why? Well there are lots of reasons and a long history, so I’ll just explain a part of it.

The two year rule.

To understand the recent roots of England’s poor regional economic policy let me introduce what I call the two year rule. There are three parts to it,

  1. It is impossible to remain usefully committed to a place outside of London for more than two years of working in London.
  2. It is impossible to learn enough about a place to develop good policies to improve it in less than two years of living and working there.
  3. It is impossible to achieve any meaningful change in UK policy without having spent at least the last two years in London.

There are always exceptions, but this rule works remarkably well. You’ve probably spotted the problem with it already — our institutions work in such a way that developing and implementing good policy for places over 80 miles from London is almost impossible.

This doesn’t mean that people making policy are deliberately biased though. Nor are they stupid or incapable. They are good people, doing the best job they can, in a system that is designed like all good systems, to preserve itself.

The need for self-preservation in its current form is a big cause of the system’s underperformance.


Why we search for imaginative things that we know won’t work.

When people start looking outside of London for answers they look for things that are different. A pay as you feel café, community-owned shared living, a radically different new economic model, a mutual hackspace. “What’s the point in showcasing ideas from outside London if they’re not imaginative?” they think.

But what works in London and Edinburgh and Oxford and Cambridge tends to work because it’s the right thing to do. And we need to do more of what works, not try imaginative things that rarely do.

The problem for people with the power to change things is that if Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds were left to compete with them there is a real risk that the Northern cities might win. Northern cities are much cheaper after all.

Why would someone with their kids in a good school and a mortgage in West London want to see their job moved North? Or be outcompeted for it by someone already there?


Achieving change.

And so even though we agree that putting software centres in Sunderland, catapults in Bradford, and government institutes in Newport and Wilmslow is a bad idea we decide to do it anyway. And we tell ourselves that we tried and that we're aiming for inclusive growth — or a similar feel-good excuse — anyway.

Now let’s instead do what might work, and build the next Crick in Manchester or Liverpool, put catapult centres in Leeds and Newcastle, and move government agencies to Bristol or Cardiff. And let’s make sure that people in Pontefract and Wigan and Burnley and Newport and Sunderland and Middlesbrough and Dudley and Walsall can get to those jobs, and participate in the clusters of excellence that they create. It would be wonderful if people in London — and remember the two-year rule, you're the only ones who can in England — would advocate for these boring things that might work instead of searching for imaginative solutions that won't.

Part of what I do at ODILeeds is develop the data tools that help others make that argument. I’ve seen a real improvement in the North’s ability to argue its case in the past decade and I can see that in tiny ways I’ve helped people to do that. That’s what I do. I do a lot moaning too, I do a lot of calling other people losers, but I also try to do positive things. And you’re very welcome to come see me at ODILeeds to join in.


The final part of this series suggests what we should do to start changing the system.

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