The London borough of Haringey and Brighton and Hove city have similar-sized populations – 260,000-300,000. They attract a lot of people who have not necessarily been brought up locally, who move in and enjoy the diverse and cosmopolitan way of life. While distinct communities, both areas find themselves inevitably drawn in by the huge gravitational pull of the capital city. Haringey lies at the northern gateway, Brighton and Hove just 56 miles south of London. For local economic development, that can be both a curse and a tidy blessing.
Young professionals – including commuters – that move into areas like these can provide a real boost to local business services. In the jargon, they ‘raise gross value added’ and attract other productive workers. But they also place huge demands on affordable housing; and if the skills these well-paid people possess are solely exported to Westminster and the City of London every working day, then there is the real danger that once thriving communities like these, become more like the dormitory towns that you find in parts of the United States. Barrack housing: places of arrival and departure, instead of points of destination in there own right.
The real aim of economic localism and political devolution to England’s city and county regions is to empower local areas to remain and prosper as points of destination; hubs where people can reside, work, or set up businesses. Indeed, a better economy and a smarter state require multi-centres of trade, commerce and culture in every part of our country. Moreover, England needs the kind of local ambition and forward thinking that the great civic leaders of Victorian municipal government achieved at the height of the first industrial revolution.
The next phase of globalisation requires a major rethink. As Andrew Adonis put it in his growth review last year, ‘The imperative is not just for more jobs, but better jobs; not just more companies, but strong growth companies which innovate and export. A new economy, spreading prosperity, restoring the link between growth and living standards.’
And therein is a positive vision that lies in stark contrast with the Conservatives’ much trumpeted long-term economic plan. Despite all the rhetoric of the recent recovery, the fact is we are a weaker economy and a more socially divided nation than we were in 2010. Workplace productivity or output per worker– the only realistic way a country can increase living standards – is below where it was in 2008, lower than in France and the United States.
The claimant count may have fallen in many local areas. Yet the numbers of families relying on food banks has increased 15-fold, to around one million at the latest count. David Cameron and television advertising campaigns laud the number of additional apprenticeships since 2010, yet in Brighton and Hove, and for under-25s everywhere, they have actually fallen. The massive growth in zero-hours contracts confirms Britain as the poster child of the hour-glass economy: rich rewards for a few at the top, declining opportunities and wage insecurity for most other working people.
No wonder the acclaimed economist and writer at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, has described George Osborne’s conjuring economic tricks on display during the budget last week as simply, ‘a mirage’. The aggregate data tells one rosy story, but the reality for a lot of local communities is a recovery not felt by all.
It is why Labour’s pledge to seriously devolve power, wealth and opportunity to local people is more than just a powerful dividing line with the Tories.
Labour-controlled local authorities, like Haringey, are already leading the way with a plan to link the fruits of local economic growth with rising living standards. They have mapped out the success measures and set targets to boost social infrastructure, grow the number of high-quality apprenticeships, as well as attract high-growth businesses to the area by 2018. Crucially, there is a plan for skills, transport and affordable housing that works in favour of local residents.
In Brighton and Hove, where Labour is looking to replace the disastrous Green-led administration in May, there are similarly ambitious plans. Despite the challenge of Tory austerity, Labour’s candidates are united in a growth plan that will restore fairness in the way the city is run. What we need next is a Labour government in power nationally. To deliver good on the promise to devolve billions of pounds and Whitehall programmes to England’s thriving local communities. Thinking global, and acting local, is the only way ahead.
Tom Bewick is Labour’s candidate for Westbourne, a ward of Brighton and Hove City Council, elections 7 May 2015 http://www.wish-westbourne.org
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