John Willman, Tim Leunig And North West England

08.09.27  NWDA AGM 2008 John Willman  Liverpool BT Conference Centre John Willman is UK Business Editor of the Financial Times, so his take on the UK economy was an important contribution to the NWDA 2008 Annual Conference in Liverpool. His message, whilst analytically cautious in the present market chaos, came over as generally upbeat. Would that Tim Leunig, the academic who advised the economic emphasis should Go South, had seen things in the same light. Better surely for the North and the South of England, if we face the UK’s regional (and centralist) challenges, than if we run away?
The headline message from John Willman‘s talk came over to me as: Tim Leunig is mistaken. And the UK economy is fundamentally strong.
Leunig’s recent staggering judgement (in the report Cities Unlimited, by the free market leaning independent think tank Policy Exchange) that in general developers should abandon the North of England for the delights of the Golden Triangle – he suggests more development around Oxbridge, which will supposedly realign the North-South markets – in my view takes some beating for silliness. John Willman appeared to be of a similar mind.
The great Victorian cities
Far from suggesting, as Leunig seems to, that Greater London should become even more overheated, Willman made the case that the ‘great Victorian cities’ are the best equipped for the new ‘global living’. There is, he said, a Kit: some combination of conference centres, art galleries, a four-star hotel, some culture and festivals, and maybe a port.
In these respects the major English cities of the North (of the Core Cities, only Bristol is South) have the edge on continental European cities such as Bordeaux and Porto. They’re also great and fascinating cities (as I too can attest), but they’re probably 15 years behind their parallels in Britain: Their docksides have yet to be developed for the new leisure economies, for instance.
North-South divide: London ‘vs’ the rest
The debate about the North-South divide, Willman told us, is sterile. It’s useless to ‘blame’ London. The UK capital is a truly global city; in this, the North can never expect or even hope to compete. It’s just not a realistic objective to close the gap.
And London, with the mayoral model which elected mayor Ken Livingstone provided, showed how a ‘get things done’ city can operate.
The national and global economy
Despite the panic, only 3% of UK mortgages are in default. Willman judged that Britain is still doing pretty well as the sixth largest manufacturer in the world, a supplier of very high quality products.
In these respects the UK economy is well placed for the globalised world; as is North West England, with its emphasis on the service economies, life sciences, media and creative products and the current / forthcoming energy industries (including nuclear energy) .
The Wimbledon effect
The UK is an open economy, which in some senses punches above its weight. Britain demonstrates the ‘Wimbledon effect‘: we don’t necessarily take the headlines, but we do host the event.
In fact, the consultants Saffron Brand recently reported that perhaps the UK sells its story ‘too well’ – some of our cities are actually more highly rated than cold analysis suggests they might be.
A strong basic economy
Willman’s overall judgement at the NWDA 2008 Annual Conference was that UK economy is ‘so much stronger than 30 years ago’.
Perhaps some of us continue to see the elephant in the room – climate change and environmental sustainability – as an critically important challenge, still to be adequately (and very urgently) addressed.
Whatever… Would that Tim Leunig and others like him were as willing as Willman, on the basis of the evidence over many decades, to recognise that people everywhere have to believe in themselves to make their economies work effectively at all.
Read more about Regions, Sub-Regions & City Regions
and about Economics Observed.

Posted on September 26, 2008, in Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Liverpool And Merseyside, People And Places, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It sounds like it was a good talk. Unfortunately I only found out about the conference after I moved to Liverpool, by which time all the tickets had gone.
    I think there’s a lot of scope for improving the Northern cities, particularly if, as you note, they can foster a can-do attitude and approach.
    I’m hoping to play my part in helping Liverpool manage that, having just ignored Tim Leunig’s “advice” and moved from Cambridge to the North-West.

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