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< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

Once upon a time, in a land not unlike our own, a fairy godmother hatched a cunning plan. To disguise its cunning, it was given a boring name and dubbed ‘convergence theory’.

With so many potential Cinderellas, the fairy godmother decided everybody should go to the ball, sharing Prince Charming between them in a roughly equitable manner.

The idea went something like this. All the balls were happening in London and the southeast, where the skilled dancers, wine waiters, royalty and suchlike were to be found.

But they demanded high wages, so balls were becoming expensive to put on.

Convergence theory says that in a properly functioning market, enough entrepreneurial types will have the balls to move out of the capital to cities with a ready supply of willing workers; while ambitious workers will gravitate to the bright lights of Ballsville in terms of higher wages.

In the end, everything evens out. Sadly for the fairy godmother, the magic spells never seemed to work, even when targets were set for improvements in ball skills and subsidies handed out to manufacturers of glass slippers.

Pan, then, to the present day and ippr north’s blueprint for northern economic revival. Put its proposals in the context of the overwhelming evidence, from tomes as weighty as the 2006 State of the English Cities report and this year’s Treasury-led review of economic development and regeneration, that convergence simply isn’t happening and is unlikely to.

There are two ways to respond. One is to hope that the market will sort itself out (not that there’s any evidence to support that). The other is to conclude that government action has never been on the required scale.

The remedies offered by ippr north – a national spatial strategy, a fairer share of transport funding, and a transfer of high-powered civil service jobs – could all help, but will they help enough?

It’s unrealistic to imagine that an economic geography that has been in place for most of the last 60 years can be reconstructed with a couple of decades of regeneration policies.

To make a lasting difference we need to be more assertive in channelling public spending to underperforming regions, braver in supporting risk and innovation, and more consistent in the outcomes we seek to achieve.

We won’t get that from governments that believe everybody should get a few crumbs.

So, in the absence of a fairy godmother… anyone for a fifth Heathrow terminal?

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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