Boris Johnson’s pitch to the North – a serious case of Groundhog Day

Stefan Rousseau/PA

Dr Olivier Sykes is a lecturer in the University’s Department of Geography & Planning:

The American actor Bill Murray seems to have a knack of appearing in films with titles that usefully apply to situations which arise in life and current affairs.

Things often seem to get `Lost in Translation’ for example! But it was the film `Groundhog Day’, in which his character has to repeatedly relive the same day that was called to mind by Boris Johnson’s ‘pitch’ to the northern regions of England over the weekend.

Here was a newly selected Prime Minister, with a support base and ‘Brexit’ agenda (contrary to popular belief) principally rooted in an older, wealthier electorate in more prosperous southern regions, pledging to do something for the ‘left behind’ regions of England.

This was uncannily similar to the attempts by Theresa May during autumn 2016 to show concern for such areas. This was followed up in the 2017 Conservative General Election Manifesto with promises of a so-called ‘UK Shared Prosperity Fund’. Yet despite consultation on the latter there has so far been little indication of how much support this may deliver in lieu of current EU Structural and Investment Funds (ESIFs) if the UK leaves the EU.

Then in March 2019 – as May was desperately seeking to garner support for the EU Withdrawal Agreement from certain northern Labour MPs, there was the sudden announcement of a so-called ‘ Stronger Towns Fund’ with £1.6 billion to apparently ‘boost growth and give communities a greater say in their future after Brexit’.

Yet as local representatives and policymakers in such areas quickly observed, this sum was a drop in the ocean in the face of: the socially regressive cuts of the austerity decade which have hit some less advantaged places and people hardest; the predicted impacts of any form of ‘Brexit’; and, foregone future EU funding opportunities.

One senior ex-civil servant even remarked that it was a “peashooter initiative”! So what might another newly selected British PM propose?

From Saturday’s performance the approach seems to be – firstly, to revisit some of the same rhetoric as May whilst adding some trademark hyperbole about ‘turbocharging’ regional growth; secondly – as the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham pointedly remarked, to rehash former Chancellor George Osborne’s 5 year old pledges of substantial investment in east-west northern rail links; and, finally, to allude to a new funding figure also ending in £0.6 billion (£3.6 billion this time).

Setting aside issues of their plausibility and sincerity, such promises have to be contextualised to be evaluated. There are two key contextual factors to be borne in mind.

The first context relates to how the UK might leave the EU given that the new PM is ramping up rhetoric and threats regarding a so-called no deal exit. This has a clear regional dimension. Whilst the government’s studies, predict that future growth under any ‘Brexit’ scenario will be lower than if the UK remains in the EU, its ‘own economic assessment shows that a “no deal” exit from the EU would be the most economically damaging outcome for the UK, with the effect most pronounced in the North East and the West Midlands’.

Academic studies similarly indicate that it is the `Midlands and the North of England which are by far the most vulnerable’ and that they are ‘more exposed to Brexit than any other region in Europe’ being ‘much more dependent on EU markets for their trade than London, the South-East or Scotland’.

Such predicted impacts are far higher under a no-deal scenario – for example, government assessments suggest that economic growth over 15 years could be reduced by 16% in North East England, 13% in the West Midlands, and 12% in the North West and Northern Ireland.

The second context has not changed as much since May’s earlier initiatives. This is the picture regarding the funding UK regions could receive from the EU regional policy post-2021.

The Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions (CPMR) suggests that if the UK remains in the EU it could be in line to receive around €13 billion of regional development funding between 2021 and 2027.

This would be equivalent to a 22% increase compared to the current 2014 to 2020 funding period – a result of the sobering fact that, once again, many areas of the UK are falling behind the EU average in terms of regional prosperity. Furthermore, internal regional disparities between regions within the UK also increased in recent years.

This means that areas like Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly West Wales and the Valleys, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham, and Lincolnshire could receive EU regional funding of over €500 per person per year after 2021. Reflecting one of the often cited advantages of EU regional funding this would be committed over a multiannual period from 2021 to 2027 and less tied to fickle domestic political calculations.

So in an uncertain situation there are a few things which are becoming clearer at present – that the latest proposals to ‘turbo charge’ regional growth do not match the likely support which could be received from the EU after 2021, the pursuit of any ‘Brexit’, and especially a ‘no deal’ scenario is likely to exacerbate regional disparities and thus prove to be socially and spatially regressive, and, that without wishing to sound churlish, it is fair to say it is not the first time that the north has heard promises such as those made this weekend.

There was in contrast it seems – and somewhat appropriately given its plotline, no sequel to Groundhog Day!