The UK’s North and Midlands were once the powerhouse for the country’s economy, with its manufacturing and engineering industries driving the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th Century.
Cities such as Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham were the industrial heartland of UK when national economies depended heavily on what they could make and sell, from textiles to steel and heavy engineering machinery.
But as industry in UK declined, the UK economy shifted its focus to services and in particular to the professional and financial services with a lot manufacturing being transferred to countries such as India and China, where production costs were much lower. This was also associated with a shift in the UK economic centre of gravity from the Midlands and the North to London leaving much of the country behind.
Vestiges of industry have survived in places like Sunderland, where the Japanese car manufacture Nissan has thrived and recently increased its commitment by investing more than £50m in its plant that builds the Qashqai model.
According to a “State of the North” research by the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) and reported in the Yorkshire Post in November 2019, “only countries like Romania and South Korea are more divided” than the UK.
It found that “in Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, disposable income per person is £48,000 higher than in Blackburn with Darwen, Nottingham and Leicester”.
In December 2019 various reports by the Centre for Cities highlighted the issues. According to the Financial Times it had found that the economic divide between London and the rest of the UK widened last year.
The FT also quoted ONS (Office for National Statistics) figures that showed that “The UK capital recorded a 1.1 per cent annual rise in output per person to £54,700 in 2018, increasing the per capita gap with the poorest region — the North East — where growth was only 0.4 per cent to £23,600 per head”.
The Centre for Cities research analyses business and employment opportunities across the UK, finding that many northern cities are underperforming, hampered by a need for growth and by being at different economic stages in terms of availability of skilled workers and of infrastructure.
But there have been some signs of hope for the UK’s North and Midlands amid the gloom with the Centre for Entrepreneurs think-tank reporting that Birmingham is now the UK’s start-up capital outside London. The British Business Bank has also revealed that entrepreneurs in the north of England received more loans than those in London.
Business Live recently reported that figures from UK Powerhouse have shown that Stoke-on Trent has the fastest employment growth in the UK.
During the recent General Election much was made of pledges to level up the economy with heavy investment promised for the UK’s North and Midlands.
Among the promises made by the Government is a pledge to get on with the proposed HS2 railway to connect northern cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to London. It argues in support of this plan that “The Midlands already has the highest concentration of businesses outside London, including international firms such as Jaguar Land Rover, MG Motors, Deutsche Bank, JCB and the 150 year old, West Midlands-founded FTSE 250 engineering firm IMI”.
It has also promised “massive investment” in a new institute of technology to be based in Leeds, and to be modelled on MIT in the US (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and there are suggestions that parts of the Treasury will be relocated to the North of England.
Whether these promises will be delivered remains to be seen, especially given the more immediate and pressing problems of the NHS demands due to the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 now playing havoc with the global supply chain and countries’ economies.
Perhaps this week’s budget will provide some clues.