Before the government was forced into locking down British regions, it wanted to level them up, closing productivity gaps between north and south. That’s a valuable objective, reinforced by new research on UK regional inequality from academics appropriately spread across Sheffield, Birmingham and London. The paper reminds us that the UK has some of the biggest productivity gaps between regions in the developed world, with global leaders in parts of London and the south-east very different to some cities in the north and Midlands.
There’s nothing new in politicians or academics pointing to the north-south divide, but more interestingly the work notes that the UK has not always led the way in this inequality between places. Most countries had higher regional gaps than the UK for most of the 20th century. Indeed, the UK’s productivity gaps fell postwar and their surge is only a post-90s phenomenon.
We also know countries can perform very differently. Since reunification of (rich) West and (poor) East Germany, a closing of huge regional gaps has been a national priority. Partly as a result, such gaps have come down since 1990, as Britain’s have increased.
So the lessons of history are that we can do better. But no one should pretend this will be easy – Germany has invested about €2tn in the east over the past three decades. When we’ve finished locking down we do need to level up, but doing so is the task of decades, not soundbites.
• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org
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