Belts, losers and big dreams

Notes from the Western Periphery


Comparing Project Ireland 2040 with the UK’s new regional development strategy yields several interesting insights

John Bradley

When a government rushes out a 330-page regional development strategy in order to deflect public attention from excoriating headlines, then you know it is in serious trouble. Not our government! I am talking about the Tory government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On February 2, Downing Street speed tracked their ‘Levelling Up the UK’ white paper in a vain attempt to switch the media headlines away from the boozy parties of lockdown, pervasive pandemic-related sleaze, rising inflation, increasing interest rates, thousands of refugees arriving in inflatables across the Channel, the turmoil of Brexit and – most importantly – threats to the survival in office of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Governments that think for a moment that a turgid regional development plan can soften the wrath of an angry public either lack imagination or are desperate. In this case, probably both.
In the long term, it is the development plan that will fade from public notice, not the righteous anger and bitterness of grieving, law-abiding people who feel betrayed by their government.
The publication of Levelling Up the UK offers fascinating insights into how a British government proposes to address rampant regional inequality compared to how Irish governments try addressing the same issues. Let’s see how Levelling Up the UK compares with Project Ireland 2040.

Analysis and diagnosis
What smacks you in the face about Levelling Up is that 100 pages (nearly one third of the entire paper) are devoted to an excruciatingly detailed forensic examination of how and why the UK is not a ‘level’ society. That a country that prides itself as being among the richest in the world has massive regional differences in the welfare of its citizens is quite an embarrassment, even for a Tory government.
Seeking explanations, the analysis starts in the year 7000BC (with the very first city, Jericho on the Jordan bank!) and reaches London by 1850AD. Working through every conceivable social and economic indicator available, they identify where the regional losers are located.
It will come as no great surprise that the lagging regions coincide with the rust belts of southern Scotland, northern England and south-west Wales. Oh, I almost forgot (as indeed the strategy often does as well): Northern Ireland is an immense loser in the great levelling up campaign. Most damning is that life expectancy in the ‘loser’ regions can be up to 12 years less than in the ‘winner’ regions of the south and west of England.
Turning to Project Ireland 2040, what do we find in terms of analysis of winners and losers? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!
Project Ireland dives headlong into visions and goals. There is no analysis of why these visions and goals are needed; why previous visions failed the North-West Region badly; why earlier regional development goals were never achieved.
Back in June 2018, when Project Ireland was published, the option of off-loading blame for the failure of previous strategies was open, if the government of the day had bothered to do its homework. However, Irish political parties tend to be reluctant to dump on each other when it comes to strategy and are no fans of analysis.
So for analysis and diagnosis in preparation of a regional strategy, I award the UK dix points; Ireland, null points.

Systems and policy
Moving on to policy proposals, in the case of Levelling Up, these come in two parts: systems reform and a policy programme. The reform of ‘systems’ means devolving power to regions, run by administrations who, we assume, know more about their local problems and local solutions than civil servants and politicians partying in London.
What is amusing here is that everyone knows the UK Tory government is notoriously reluctant to devolve any real power to regions and treats the Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations with contempt.
The policy programme in Levelling Up is a bewildering array of putative increases in public investment. However, the Tories presided over a decade of cutting public expenditure. The ‘extra’ funding would not even restore the pre-cuts position, whatever about improving it.
Turning to Project Ireland, there are no systems reforms. No coherent policy programme. There is a reluctance to talk money. Plans, visions and dreams are trotted out. Many of them are quite sensible. None of them are costed. None of them are joined up. None of them really tackle the particularly Irish challenge of unequal regional development, which, due to an absence of analysis, is barely understood. We in Ireland have no massive rust belts because we did not have any belts to begin with. But we do have declining and depopulating rural regions.
For levelling-up policy proposals, I award the UK six points for at least knowing what needs to be done. Mind you, the spectacle of a Tory government led by Boris Johnson promoting regional devolution is too funny for words and will convince nobody, least of all the much derided Scottish and Welsh governments. All the while, Northern Ireland remains an offshore region of the UK, too embroiled in its own toxic history to take much interest in economic development.
I award Ireland trois points for trying to preserve a fairly decent standard of living in our mainly rural northwestern region. But if there is one thing that our government could learn from Levelling Up, it is that analysis should precede action. Celtic visions and dreams will always disappoint.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.