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Ross Smith's column on closing the gap between London and other cities


TRY a small experiment today. Walk down your street and ask everyone you see what they think the Government’s top priority is. I’d be amazed if any got it right.

Most would probably say Brexit; some might say national security; a few may mention the housing crisis.

But this year’s Conservative manifesto made it clear. “There remains a far greater gap between the capital and other cities in the UK than in any other major developed country,” it said.

“We see the opportunity to close this gap as the biggest prize in Britain today.”

So what have they done about it? Well, quite a bit in fairness. Devolution is now being offered to North of Tyne, while Tees Valley discusses increasing its powers.

The Northern Powerhouse remains in place, and while some denigrate this, measures like statutory powers on transport are genuinely helpful.

Last week’s industrial strategy had a big section on ‘places’, including a potentially crucial plan to make rebalancing a far bigger factor when deciding on infrastructure investments.

So the Government are making a conscious effort, though you’d be forgiven for thinking – and you’d be right – that these don’t quite add up to the “great endeavour” the Tory manifesto rather grandly promised.

But there a plenty of times when the focus seems to slip.

For example, recent proposals for assessing where housing should be built would produce a big shift in investment towards London.

Or when the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson published his plans for making Brexit successful, he called for infrastructure investment “especially in London” – almost as though he hadn’t read the manifesto at all.

There are some positives, and some negatives, then. So what’s the net result? Is the gap being closed?

I’ve no idea. Regional economic data gets published once a year, when it’s already 12 months out of date, and is subsequently revised so much to make it almost meaningless.

Meanwhile, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility is tasked with producing all kinds of analysis of the Chancellor’s decisions, but nowhere do they publish assessments of the regional impact – presumably because they’ve never been asked.

If I was seriously competing for the biggest prize in Britain, I’d want to know whether I was winning or not.

So try a different experiment. Walk along Whitehall and ask every minister you meet what they think the Government’s top priority is. You might get a similar success rate.