Posted by: davidjmarlow | 26/06/2011

From North-South to Labour’s South-South debate

Andrew Rawnsley’s article in today’s Guardian is a strong restatement of the North/South debates that have dominated English regional policy for at least a generation. It succinctly differentiates between the last and current government approaches to tackling these challenges – namely Labour made significant public investment in key ‘northern’ cities; the Coalition doesn’t really have an approach at all!

There is a certain predictability about how the North/South debates will evolve through this parliament. More interesting, however, is how Labour will come to terms with its positioning and offer in the ‘South’.

No doubt, this version of the ‘rebalancing’ debate will rumble on through the current parliament. At some stage, government will recognise that Labour did learn quite a lot about north/south rebalancing, and had put in place a series of instruments – statutory city regions, LAAs/MAAs, Total Place/Total Capital etc – which, together with fiscal transfers, did have potential to enable areas outside the London world city mega-region to progress their ambitions. In the event the private sector does not ride to the rescue of the north, midlands and south west, expect the Coalition to return to these instruments – suitably rebranded – in the latter half of the parliament.

What is needed for Labour, during these years, though, is a serious South-South debate – i.e. how to make Labour an attractive proposition outside their Inner, East London, and urban ‘islands’ across the more economically successful and socially prosperous communities of the Greater South East (GSE). Winning electoral battles in these areas will be crucial to Labour’s hopes of returning to national power, particularly at an England-level.

Labour’s approach during the last decade comprised regional spatial planning dominated by housing numbers debates, together with designated ‘growth areas’ where the bulk of such housing was to be located. Despite later attempts to broaden the emphasis, this strategy never convincingly escaped the perception of being a ‘housing project’ – which had little attraction to NIMBY ‘burghers’ of affluent suburbs and market towns. Moving forward, a positive Labour agenda needs to be deliberated and developed by Labour with progressive citizens and communities in these areas.

Labour’s rebalancing challenge is NOT politically about the ‘north’. It is about providing a compelling alternative to the NIMBY-dominated agendas of more prosperous areas of the south. Paradoxically, many of Labour’s ‘answers’ for the north have an even greater resonance with and applicability to the south. Their ability to promote a serious south/south debate, and demonstrate they are committed to the solutions that come out of it, will probably be the greatest determinant of whether and when they recapture political power in England again.

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