More ideas like HS3 are needed to solve our regional problems

In London and much of the South East, the recovery has been well under way for a considerable time.  House prices boom and restaurants are packed.  The economic data for the UK as a whole looks just as encouraging, with employment being at its highest ever level.

Yet there are persistent complaints that the recovery is not spread evenly.  Many areas are alleged to still be in the doldrums.  The bogeyman of austerity is invoked to explain the geographically uneven nature of the recovery.  Restraint on public spending has undoubtedly worked for the economy as a whole, contrary to the beliefs of liberal commentators.  There is perhaps a kernel of truth in the allegation at a regional level.  Like all governments, the coalition has rewarded its own supporters in terms of the allocation of central funds to local authorities.  As a result, many councils in the North are facing a punishing squeeze on their spending levels.  And it is precisely in these areas where state spending plays a large role in the local economy.

But the uneven spread of prosperity as the recovery gathers pace is nothing new.   There is a huge amount of inertia in the labour market experiences of different local areas.  So once a town experiences a high rate of unemployment, it becomes very difficult to alter its relative position.  The rate of unemployment still varies with the overall state of the economy, though the rate in such an area remains relatively high.  The town continues to feel poor compared to more dynamic locations.

There are around 400 local authorities across the UK as a whole.  If we take the rates of unemployment in these areas in 1990 and compare them with the rates in 2010, the correlation is very high, at 0.81.  An area with relatively high unemployment in 1990 had a very good chance of experiencing the same thing no less than twenty years later.  In a recent article in Applied Economics Letters, I show that the same result holds for relative unemployment rates within the individual regions of the UK.  Incredibly, the correlation within regions over a 20 year period is even higher than across the UK as a whole, at 0.88.

This very strong persistent of relative prosperity, or rather the lack of it in some areas over a long period of time, does call for a thorough reappraisal of policy.  Even within an individual region, poor local areas essentially remain relatively poor compared with their immediate neighbours.  Conventional regional policies, on which many billions have been spent, have not worked.  At least the coalition abolished the futile Regional Development Agencies.  But, equally clearly, the market mechanism is not providing the answer.  Twenty years is a long period of time over which incentives ought to work.

George Osborne’s proposal for high speed rail links to connect the North within itself more effectively has attracted a lot of criticism.  But it is exactly such imaginative, potentially risky, concepts which are needed.  Conventional thinking has failed completely.

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.