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David Skelton: Elected mayors could make the North less reliant on Whitehall and Westminster for jobs and growth

David Skelton is Deputy Director of Policy Exchange. Follow him on Twitter.

A fellow North Easterner living in London alerted me to The Times’ interactive map of the town and cities deciding whether to have an elected Mayor today. Here it is:

Times interactive map

It presents a slightly unconventional (i.e. geographically ignorant) view of the North. Newcastle, for example is portrayed as being just South East of Doncaster, when it’s actually over 100 miles to the North. Everywhere else is bunched up like a terrace of back-to-back houses. It’s almost as though a Southern hack has thrown a random series of numbers at an amorphous ‘North’ on a map. They may as well have scrawled “Here Be Dragons” across the Pennines and left it at that.
It made me think of the anecdote that Charles Moore told in his Telegraph column a few weeks ago:
"Once, when editing this great newspaper, I noticed that we had published an article which said that Manchester was “three hours away”. “Three hours away from where?” I asked my colleagues coldly. Not from Liverpool, not from Birmingham, and not, obviously, from Manchester. The author had meant, without thinking, three hours from London. Any non-Londoner reading the phrase would have been strongly put off."

Sadly, the same sloppy approach is still being made. For many in the London-based media (and politics, and business), the North is almost another country.

That is, in itself, a good case for a radical decentralisation of power in the UK. The Westminster village is a bubble. Politicians are obsessed with the trivialities of this bubble – trivialities that the overwhelming majority of voters don’t care about. Journalists in London are obsessed with Westminster trivia and what is happening in London. Occasionally, the London-based papers send an intrepid political reporter to report back on what is happening in ‘the North’ – reports which often read more like an anthropological study than anything else, often repeating outdated and stereotyped attitudes about the Northern residents they encountered. Geordie Shore and Geordie finishing school for girls are two recent examples of the London media portraying their negative and clichéd view of the North East on national TV programmes. Not for them the Baltic art gallery or the Pitmen Painters – for London’s media classes, the North East is apparently about heavy drinking and fake tan.

For years, the BBC and quite a few national newspapers had a “North of England correspondent” – it goes without saying that there were no “South of England” equivalents. And over the past few months, people in Newcastle, Manchester, Durham and Sheffield have had to read and watch coverage of a London election as though it was a national election that directly affected them.

Our ‘Northern Lights’ poll, released on Monday showed that 81 per cent of people didn’t think that politicians didn’t understand the real world at all. That figure rises to 83 per cent in the North. If people across the country feel that politicians are out of touch, that feeling is magnified in the North.

The Westminster and London bubble has dominated political and media discourse for too long. It’s a symbol of the fact that we are the most excessively centralised country in Western Europe. Power belongs in Westminster, local councils are toothless and anonymous and the primary dynamic of big cities and English regions is their relationship with the capital. It’s time for that to change.

We need a radical decentralisation of power in the UK. That’s why Northern cities need elected Mayors: high-profile figures, with a popular mandate, who can stand toe-to-toe with Cabinet Ministers and be a strong voice for the North. It’s why we need to ensure that Northern towns and cities are economic powerhouses, which don’t depend on their relationship with Whitehall and London to create jobs.

The centre of gravity in England has been tilted towards London for much too long. It’s time for the North to rediscover its verve and confidence and make sure that it can’t be casually disregarded by London-based journalists and politicians in the future.


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