So said Bob Kerslake, the former boss of the civil service, who’s now head of the UK2070 commission, an independent inquiry into the nation’s geographical inequalities. Fancy fast rail and road links just won’t cut it. We need skills, research, development, education. Cash too. Don’t forget cash.
Here’s the thing: I wonder how residents in Barking & Dagenham might feel about all this. It ranks as London’s most deprived borough, and it came in 21st out of 317 in the whole of England based on the currently favoured “index of multiple deprivation”.
The same goes for the people of the seaside town of Jaywick. It was last year named as Britain’s most deprived neighbourhood, an unwanted distinction it has held three times in a row since 2010.
It’s not in the North East, Yorkshire, or even the North West. It’s in Essex, near Clacton.
Deprivation isn’t unique to the north, where I was born into a council house.
I’ve since lived on both sides of the Watford Gap. So I’m not playing the role of whinging southerner here. In fact, I back efforts to narrow the north-south divide. I was writing in support of them long before they became fashionable in political circles.
But what I fear is being missed from the current debate about inequality, and how to “level up” Britain, is that some of the starkest divides are to be found not between regions but within them.
Super soaraway London doesn’t look so super from the perspective of those living in its poorer boroughs, and Barking & Dagenham isn’t alone in ranking among Britain’s most deprived.
You can see this writ large by taking a walk around nearby Tower Hamlets, where I lived for a time.
More than 40 of its neighbourhoods are among the 20 per cent most deprived nationally.
Often visible from the crumbling flats in which many of its residents are housed are the gleaming glass towers of the City.
The contrast is stark, and glaring.
Some City folk get it and are open to a bit of DIY levelling up. They go into schools, they do mentoring. Some of their employers are even supportive of these efforts. But plenty don’t give two hoots. They come in from the leafy suburbs, or shires, and they leave at the end of the day without paying the slightest bit of attention to what’s going on under their noses. The same is true of many of the Tory MPs they elect, by the way.
Nor would they dream of visiting one of the decaying seaside towns on the nation’s fringes, like Jaywick, either. Tuscany rules. The irony of HS2, the government’s biggest ‘levelling up’ project, is that it might serve to benefit the sprightlier parts of London’s economy more than it does the north. That’s what some of the studies into it have indicated.
When it’s up and running, bankers, especially the more junior ones, might be able to consider commuting from the nicer parts of Manchester, while ignoring the poverty under their noses in that city, and failing to visit, say Blackpool.
Its neighbourhoods took the next eight slots after Jaywick when government officials conducted their ranking exercise.
What is it they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?
When it comes to “levelling up” there’s a lot of work that needs to be done within as well as between regions. But Boris Johnson’s government seems minded to go for the quick fix: a lot of noise, a lot of headlines, some big splashy projects where he and his ministers can be photographed in high vis jackets and hard hats, never mind the cost over runs and whether any of it will actually do any good.
Meanwhile, use that phrase in Jaywick, or in Barking or in Tower Hamlets and you’ll probably get told to “go away” – with distinctly saltier language. And you’d probably deserve it.
It wouldn’t come as an awfully big surprise if you got the same response, albeit with a slightly different vowel sound, in Blackpool.
The problems of these places are deep rooted and won’t respond to quick fixes, where the government’s even trying to fix them at all.