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BBC 2’s Mind the Gap fails to explain why London’s economic success is more than a feeling
The BBC is finally catching up with what most of us have already realised – we are living in a two track economy
The first part of Evan Davies’s slickly-filmed ‘Mind the Gap’ told us 58% of London workers are graduates, with throngs of workers packing into the City honeypot, the UK’s all-powerful magnet for young people.
Sadly, a credible explanation was wanting – the only one really offered was the capital’s self-reinforcing cycle of growth, which most of us can discern.
But there were too many protracted case studies and not enough hard economics, with scant attention paid to the vital importance of housing and its spiralling cost to young people and to the city’s essential workers – not to mention its professional middle-classes who the Financial Times revealed last month are being gradually priced out of one borough after another.
Seamier subjects such as the riots of 2011, immigration, rents, poverty, and people living in cardboard sheds, were carefully avoided in favour of the sexy world of Old Street and its creative hot-air industry. The rest of the UK, meanwhile, has so far been portrayed in two images – the thoroughly sensible Kenton Robbins standing on top of a Yorkshire hill, and a derelict cotton mill in Hebden Bridge.
Davies’s main economic discovery was that proximity fuels productivity. But isn’t this fast-paced economy coming with serious disadvantages for employees? Employers craving status invest in high spec headquarters in the City, set higher and higher standards that only qualified graduates can attain and then, naturally, grab all the starry-eyed young talent for themselves.
So young people who have been encouraged to go to university are led to believe that all the opportunities cluster in London thanks to these aggressively expansionist employers – like the self-satisfied Google boss – who didn’t trouble himself about where his workers were going to live.
But according to Robbins, “it’s only a feeling”…..London is not the only place to be, and as London’s fortunes are built on the hard graft of young talented employees, what will happen now they are being squeezed too far and struggling to maintain living standards?
Location does matter. But the wishy-washy rhetoric of the technology and PR sector, profiled in the Silicon Roundabout segment, does not an economy make, and other professions do not need all that highly inefficient office buzz and can take advantage of remote working. Most employers would agree that team work is essential but the kind of open plan group working that Evan Davies obsesses about is not representative of the wider economy – even the creative sectors.
Boris Johnson exposed his wrong-headed theory about London’s benefits for the economy – pile on as much jam as possible here and hope that some spills over – when he asserted that Edinburgh wouldn’t have a financial sector were it not for London. He must have forgotten the long and illustrious history of financial services in Scotland – or did the bad behaviour of Fred the Shred wipe our memories clean?
Our nation doesn’t have to rely entirely and pathetically on London working well. It needs companies and investors who are prepared to look through the gloss of lattes and corporate jargon about working together – which contrive to cement London’s competitive advantage and exclude the rest of the country – and see that the very bloated-ness and distortion in London’s economy will create another force: not centrifugal, but dispersing…..and it is already happening. Those organisations, and the young workers they need, must have the courage to invest their time, energy and creativity elsewhere.
Manchester is already becoming the UK’s most vibrant city for young people, while I know from my experience as a financial trade reporter that many financial companies are choosing to be based elsewhere. Let’s hope Davies digs a bit deeper than his stereotypical abandoned mill next time…