Move the Capital to Newcastle

It’s the only way to bridge Britain’s disastrous divisions

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd September 1999.

It’s as if somone had picked up England by the northern border and were slowly shaking the population down to the South. Last week, new government figures revealed that nearly a quarter of a million people have fled from their homes in the North since 1991. Liverpool has shrunk by four per cent, Redcar by 5.5, and Easington, in County Durham, by almost six. The South is sucking northern England dry.

There are a few pockets of resistance. Leeds is booming. Parts of Liverpool and Manchester are slowly reviving, though neighbouring areas are getting grimmer by the month. But the great wound dividing England, which appeared to be healing a little during the early 1990s, has re-opened and is bleeding more profusely than ever. The North-South divide is beginning to look permanent.

The result is two equal and opposite problems. In Salford, in Greater Manchester, homes are said to be changing hands for a few hundred pounds. Entire streets have been deserted. On Merseyside and in the North-East, local authorities have been pulling down the estates they built just a few years ago; some have never been inhabited. As young people move away, the older folk they have left behind find themselves haunting the North’s new ghost towns.

Much of southern England, by contrast, is suffering the diseases of over-indulgence. Swindon, having run out of employees, has been forced to start advertising in the North. Newbury, which has no unemployment, has recently granted planning permission for one of Britain’s biggest companies to build its global headquarters outside the town. There is nowhere for the new workers to live.

Some 900,000 new homes will have to be built in the South-East, which, unlike the North, possesses little of the derelict industrial land on which the Government wants to accommodate them. The result will be massive environmental destruction, as existing settlements expand and new towns consume some of the region’s last tranquil areas. Rocketing house prices reward the rich while excluding the poor, and every day the traffic jams nudge closer to gridlock.

In the past, governments sought to resolve this problem by throwing money at it. Since the 1930s, billions of pounds of regional aid have poured into the deprived parts of Britain. A few schemes have been successful, but many have failed spectacularly. Last year, Siemens and Fujitsu, two of the biggest employers in the North-East, and the recipients of £50 million of government grants, both closed their factories. Regions compete to offer companies bigger bribes than their neighbours, making desperate guarantees that local people come bitterly to regret: reduced protection for the workforce and the environment, virgin land on which to build, and no corresponding obligations.

The present government appears to have recognised the folly of this approach. Its regional development agencies are concentrating, instead, on urban regeneration. It has resigned itself to setting Britain’s inequalities in stone, by letting the South-East build the towns required to house the North’s economic refugees. Nearly everyone – ministers, academics, even local authorities – seems to have accepted that England’s great gash is now unstitchable: the problem must be accommodated rather than addressed.

It seems to me that there is a solution, which has been overlooked precisely because it is big enough and drastic enough to succeed. It is time to move the capital.

Britain is one of the most centralised nations on earth. Governments which have pulled power into their own hands have ensured that state employment stays close to Westminster. Devolution has shifted some jobs, but many of central government’s half a million workers are still forced to live in the South East. Clustered around the capital are the media and the companies which rely on government contracts.

Moving the capital to, for example, Newcastle, would signal unequivocally that government takes the north of England’s problems seriously. Jobs would spread, as they have done in the South, from the North-East into neighbouring regions, as the businesses attracted by government in turn attract other employers, hoping to trade with them. Southern England will retain its advantages – its proximity to Europe, good weather and established infrastructure – but its demented property boom and disastrous decline in environmental quality should come to a halt.

Moving the capital would be a huge, complicated, traumatic operation, which will turn the lives of many people upside down. But the alternative is far worse: a nation that will for ever be at odds with itself, as one half prospers at the expense of the other.