Is London sucking the life out of Yorkshire?

August 1, 2012

Now then. It’s Yorkshire Day, the strange quasi-national festival which has been gathering momentum since 1975.

I generally think it is a Good Thing. Yorkshire contains as many people as Scotland (possibly very slightly more) but doesn’t have the same profile – mainly due to that fact that Yorkshire people are modest, understated, and absolutely never ever bang on about how brilliant God’s Own County is.

I had assumed it was a totally ahistoric thing made up in the 1970s, but it turns out to be based on Minden Day.

It’s an ideal opportunity to exchange facts about how brilliant Yorkshire is. Did you know that the entire Roman Empire was (briefly) run out of York, by the somewhat evil sounding Emperor Septimus Severus? Or that Yorkshire was the scene of the first ever human heavier-than air-flight? Or that it was initially formed when the rule of Eric Bloodaxe (who sounds unpleasant) gave way to King Edgar the Peaceful (he sounds nicer) in the year 960? And you knew about the world’s largest pie anyway, right?

It’s also a fine opportunity for Yorkshire-based nonsense. This year, for example, Hinchcliffes butchers from Huddersfield have made a giant pork pie in the shape of York Minster. As you do.

This is all good. But I sometimes worry that Yorkshire Day may be reinforcing whippet/flat cap-based stereotypes. Perhaps this is because my own campaign to persuade my southern wife that the county is not just a series of cliches has somewhat stalled. (I took her to a sophisticated country pub. There was a brass band playing in the car park.)

These stereotypes are all good things in a way, and I am pleased that my life has benefited from heavy exposure to Simon Armitage, dialect-based puppy christenings (don’t ask) and some of the best chippys in this part of the galaxy.

However, the county also has to look to the future. This is partly an image thing. Personally, I would ban the Arts Council from funding any further depressing films about the local pit closing down etc and force the beeb to produce some forward looking stuff about sexy young lawyers and businesswomen having it large in Leeds. Such people exist aplenty in the real world, but sadly not in the media, and an image of endless Hovis-soundtracked misery is not going to attract potential investors and entrepreneurs.

But, as the civic leaders of Yorkshire gather today in Scarborough, they should ponder what they can do to boost the county in the future.

The period 1997 – 2010 saw Yorkshire lagging behind the growth of other parts of the country. The chart below shows how regional GVA per capita compared to the national average (100 per cent). I’ve ranked them on the progress they made compared to other places and, sad to say, Yorkshire and the Humber came second from bottom, falling back from 88.4 per cent of the national average in 1997 to 82.6 per cent in 2010. It isn’t the poorest place (and parts are very rich). But London and the South East continue to pull ahead, and Scotland has been doing better at catching up than Yorkshire has.

What to do about it?

As the Olympic opening ceremony suggested, this is the age of the knowledge economy, not smokestacks. One of the main explanations for the different growth rates of of cities and regions over recent decades is their share of highly educated people.

On that front most of Yorkshire is doing OK, but only mid-table. The graph below shows the proportion of people who had a degree by area. The West and the rest of Yorkshire are mid-table, but south Yorkshire is lagging. The graph below is ordered by the increase in the share of graduates between 1996/7 and the most recent year (2011) – which is the green area.

As you can see, the age of information is also the age of big cities. London and its hinterland sucks in graduates like a black hole, and has pulled further ahead of the rest of the country.

But other large, regenerating cities have seen big increases too: Glasgow (Strathclyde) and Manchester have done a good job of attracting brains. Glasgow’s West End and the trendy centre of Manchester seem to bear out Richard Florida’s ideas about how cities can attract the “creative class” – many highly educated and talented people want to live in the suburbs of a funky city with lots of things to do and people to meet.

But the scale of these cities matters too. In recent decades, economists like Ed Glaeser have shown that in a post-industrial economy, bigger cities are crucial: they enable the flow of ideas, increase the size of people’s networks, and raise the productivity of people who live in them. Smaller cities are just less able to do this.

There is an opportunity for the leaders of Yorkshire’s bigger cities here (particularly Leeds). I’ve written before about how council planners do almost everything they can to prevent the kinds of development people want. They could stop. Yorkshire may have a potential advantage over the South East, in that Nimbyism seems to be strongest of all in the South. It might be easier to get to a sensible policy up North.

The data above looks at where graduates end up. You could look at it and say that all that’s is happening is that Yorkshire people are moving elsewhere (I’m one of them).

If you are more interested in people from Yorkshire (wherever they are) rather than people in Yorkshire you would want to look at how Yorkshire schools are doing. What opportunities will children growing up in Yorkshire have?

On that front the data is mixed. Less Yorkshire kids stay on in education than the national average (83 per cent vs 85 per cent) and there are less sixth formers (46 per cent v 48 per cent). But of those who do stay on, the proportion going to university is rightly the national average, and the proportion going to top Russell Group universities is a bit above the national average (10 per cent vs 8 per cent). Yorkshire schools are basically doing pretty averagely.

So how can Yorkshire do better?

Being a small country with a big capital has lots of advantages for Britain, but it means that other parts of the country need to work pretty hard if they want to counteract the gravitational pull of London. What could they do? If I were president of an independent Yorkshire (this isn’t an application by the way) I would:

  • Try and lure the best chains of academy schools (like Ark and Harris) to come and turn around the most failing schools in the county.
  • Try to learn from how Scotland and the North East lured high-end industry and inward investors in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Replace mad town hall planners with a proper planning system to that you can get things built (something which has helped Preston do incredibly well in recent decades).
  • Shift resources from the overpaid public sector to the undersized private sector by sorting out public sector pay (while not allowing any money to be sucked out of the county).
  • Try to grow Leeds. As Yorkshire’s largest city, it has the best chance to suck in graduates. And learn from how Manchester regenerated its centre (because bigger cities are increasingly important).

There, how does that sound?

This article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph’s website

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