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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Britain's regional identity crisis

by BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

A tip for those inspired by the general election battle to enter politics - brush up on your UK geography.


The causes of disparities within and between regions must be tackled

Labour Party manifesto
The nature of Britain, issues surrounding its make up and break up, have long been a matter of, fittingly, national discussion.

But whereas at the last election, the British identity crisis spilled over into rows over the country's relationship with the EU, debate since has focused increasingly on the country's internal divisions.

Least prosperous areas (GDP per head)
1: Sefton 7,300
2=: East Lothian and Midlothian, 7,500
2=: Wirral, 7,500
4: East Sussex, 7,800
5: Nth Ireland, west and south, 7,900

Data: 1998, ONS

While the rise of the Referendum Party typified the spirit of the 1997 poll, this time round it is the likes of the Campaign for the English Regions which are stealing the headlines.

Labour's manifesto includes a strong commitment to reducing regional differences.

"The causes of disparities within and between regions must be tackled," it says, promising 1.7bn in regional aid grants.

But it is the disparities in wealth and government support between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England that have exercised the nationalist parties.

And Labour has ruled out a revision of the formula which ensures that Scotland and Wales get substantially higher public spending per head of population.

That has caused dissension among many Northern Labour MPs, who argue their region is poorer than many areas north of the Border.

Variation within regions

While surveys have revealed an economic gap between an affluent south of England and a struggling north, Prime Minister Tony Blair has focused on the differences within regions.

Most prosperous areas (GDP per head)
1: Inner London, West, 57,300
2: Berkshire, 19,000
3: Edinburgh, 18,400
4: Swindon, 18,100
5: Portsmouth, 18,000

Data: 1998, ONS

Cheshire is in many ways better off than Kent, he told observers 18 months ago, while York has an economic output per head 27% above the national average.

Many analysts, however, point to the wealth of data, on topics ranging from unemployment to mortality, supporting the concept of a north-south divide.

Such observers include many Labour MPs who have continued to highlight the tribulations of the north - traditionally a party heartland - even at the risk of exposing the government's failure to spread affluence more widely.

'Performance gap'

In March, former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, in a speech condemning government officials as a "local raj set out to impose Whitehall's will", warned over regional economic differences.

Peter Mandelson on the bridge of the Hartlepool lifeboat
Peter Mandelson: honing regionalist credentials
Three weeks later former Northern Ireland secretary, and New Labour architect, Peter Mandelson called for measures to shift power and wealth to poorer areas.

"Statistics show that a large performance gap between regions remains," he said.

"London and the South East is the richest region in the EU... but in every other part of the UK standards of living are below the European average".

Most anger, however, has been caused by the government's refusal to consider reforming a spending regime introduced in 1978 as a "temporary expedient" for helping poorer areas - yet which remains largely unrevised despite huge changes to the UK's economic map.

Cross-border divide

Under the scheme, the so-called Barnett formula, public spending is in Wales 18% more per head, and in Scotland 23% higher, than in England.

Public spending (per head, 1999-00)
Northern Ireland, 5,052
Scotland, 5,271
Wales, 5,052
England, 4,283

Data: ONS

Yet while Wales can claim on many measures to be one of the poorer parts of the UK, Scots are, overall, more prosperous than their neighbours just over the border.

An unemployment rate of 5.9% in Scotland compares with a 7.9% figure in the North East of England.

Scotland's economic output rose by 1% in the last three months of last year, compared with a 0.3% increase in the UK as a whole.

And Edinburgh's economic output per head is, at 18,400, higher than all but two UK areas - Berkshire and west London.

Indeed, the SNP estimates that, despite being favoured by the Barnett formula, Scotland has contributed 7.7bn more to the Treasury over the last two years than it has received back.

While many Labour MPs, including deputy prime minister John Prescott and regions minister Richard Caborn, are thought to have backed a review of the Barnett regime, others have been wary of the risks of alienating Scottish voters.

On Wednesday, speaking after the launch of the Labour manifesto, Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's official spokesman, ruled out a change in the formula.

Regional assemblies

What the manifesto offered the regions instead is a repeat of the 1997 pledge to support the setting up of "directly elected regional government" in areas which vote for it.

In some areas "there may be a stronger sense of regional identity" than can be expressed through the regional development agencies introduced by the Blair government, the manifesto said.

The party also promised localised venture capital funds to help regional business, and to "work in partnership with local people to ensure that all regions and communities build on their own strengths".

'Federal UK'

More radical regionalists may prefer the vision set out by the Liberal Democrats, which have outlined a "federal United Kingdom where services are delivered at the lowest possible level".

Besides giving extra tax-raising powers to the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, the part would old referenda on setting up regional assemblies.

Such assemblies, would subsume "core powers" from Westminster and regional quangos.

'Regional bureaucracy'

The Conservatives, however, question whether Britons really identify with their region as well as their neighbourhood and country.

"Almost non-one identifies with the arbitrary regions into which the country has been carved up," the party's manifesto said, dismissing RDAs as "regional bureaucracy".

"Real communities are being weakened by... the imposition of artificial new layers of government with which people don't identify."

Conservatives would scrap RDAs, and plans for regional assemblies, in favour of giving extra powers to the best-performing local councils.


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