11 March 2020

States of the Union: a view from 2030

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The UK is at a critical point in its history. Brexit, a new economic framework and a recalibrating Labour Party rub up alongside the dash to carbon neutral, the impacts of AI and, of course, Covid-19. The decisions that are taken now will set the direction of the country for years to come. When we look back in 2030, what sort of a decade will we see?

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It is January 1st 2030. There are queues at passport control at Berwick. House prices have plummeted since Scottish independence and the creation of the (devalued) Scottish pound, with large scale immigration encouraged by the SNP to try and recover GDP. Hadrian II, as its nicknamed, is the new fence protecting England from smugglers and economic refugees. 60 miles further south, guard dogs patrol the old Nissan site. There’d been such hope back in 2020. But the rapid move to electric vehicles and WTO terms post-Brexit had made a major downsizing inevitable anyway.

The coastal industrial regions of Teesside and Wearside had been in long decline, not helped by the East Coast Mainline running some 20 miles inland, bypassing them entirely. Call centre jobs had provided low paid work to the many who had been unable to leave following the 80s deindustrialisation. These jobs were always the most vulnerable to AI and their demise from productivity investments encouraged by minimum wage increases provided a double whammy, bringing unemployment to many households.

Episodic NEETs cycled through apprenticeships with hospitals and local authorities, the principle remaining employers, whilst social mobility schemes allowed the brightest an escape route out. Manchester had become an increasingly popular choice. The northern part of HS2 had been accelerated, and whilst the trans-Pennine HS3 route was still under construction, the combination of connectivity with science and cultural investment created an economic boom across the Pennine belt.

HS3 would bring our escapee’s Teesside home to 2h rather than 2.5h from Manchester. For him that was close enough. More typical visitors were ethnography students studying dysfunctional societies and documentary makers looking for stories of Broken Britain. Guardian articles periodically highlighted the dismal life expectancies, in part from stubbornly high suicide rates, with repeated calls for more NHS spending on mental health. Spice addiction, to numb the passing days, fuelled crime.  It wasn’t until the infamous January 2029 riots and the collapse of Scotland with the return of Border Reiving that the national conscience was awoken, with Labour sweeping to victory in the subsequent General Election.

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It is January 1st 2030. Fireworks light up the cranes. Indyref2 is now a distant memory with the Scottish Tories in command at Holyrood. Scotland and northern England celebrate renewed cultural and economic ties and a decade of renaissance. Lots still to be built, to be regenerated, but house prices are rising and people are returning. Business is busy. The construction provided critical work for the mass unemployment caused by Nissan’s downsizing, AI and the demise of the call centre on the foundational economy. Universities had been incentivised to focus on technical education and adult retraining. There were generous tax breaks for R&D and entrepreneurship in low GVA areas. A large swathe of low value land had been partitioned between private sector consortia bidders. Through it the path of the new HS3(S) was rapidly taking shape, with some parts already in operation, thanks to the flatness of the land and lack of obstruction. The Newcastle-Edinburgh link had been prioritised, bringing the two cities to a 35 minute commute, a key factor in cementing economic and cultural ties between the nations.

There was worldwide interest in the development consortia’s focus on community regeneration, which was being incentivised by sharing with government the long term gains in health and welfare spending, as well as GVA uplift.

The strategic location of new institutes in the left behind towns as part of the UK ARPA programme had been criticised because ‘nobody will want to go there’. But the regeneration focus on aesthetics, improved schooling and culture changed this. The pieces of a transport jigsaw which would create a new supercity region were rapidly falling into place, from Glasgow/Edinburgh to the North East Coast and across the Leeds/Manchester/Liverpool Pennine belt.

The replacement of the CAP and empowerment of local communities to design their own surroundings had led to a renewal of social cohesion. Parkland and woodland creation increased the attractiveness of smaller towns, now resurgent with their much better links to the city beacons.

The government’s social infrastructure and local empowerment programme had rapidly shifted the norm in the Labour strongholds from passive to active, from left behind to forging ahead. Labour only began to grasp this in the post mortem of their 2029 defeat.

………..

Which nation will we be living in come 2030? Which will we most resemble? The answer lies in the Johnson government’s hands.

Policies such as maintaining Entrepreneurs’ relief, enhancing R&D tax credits and lowering corporation tax in all low GVA areas could lead to the brighter, second future. So too could connecting the forgotten major conurbations, extending high speed rail beyond the Pennines, up the eastern coastal brownfields to Scotland, and firing up intra-region connectivity to the key hubs.

Private sector consortia will also be key, as they will be the ones building the infrastructure, enhancing the aesthetics and desirability of areas. The government should bring in a series of tax incentives for new co-located housing and business, with additional rewards from government pegged to improvements in that area’s GVA, health and welfare spend. These policies, combined with a community-focused plan to empower locals to greenify their surroundings, could make 2030 Britain a very green and pleasant land indeed.

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Dr Paul Goldsmith is President of Closed Loop Medicine, a clinician and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies