By Andy Bruce
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) -Britain should take a lesson from Germany to address huge disparities between the wealthy southeast of England and elsewhere in the country, leaders of northern English cities and regions said on Wednesday.
Academics have long singled out Britain for high levels of regional inequality compared to other advanced economies, but the issue has gained new political traction in light of soaring inflation and collapsing public health and transport services.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson made "levelling up" Britain a flagship policy in 2019. While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also vowed to tackle regional inequality, local leaders say there has been scant progress.
Mayors and civic leaders from the north of England, in a joint statement on Tuesday, called on London to "hard-wire" levelling-up into British law, echoing Germany, where the constitution guarantees equivalent living standards, helping it to integrate its formerly Communist east after reunification.
"Germany shows us what can be done when you hard-wire legal guarantees to tackle inequalities and empower local leaders into the fabric of your country," said Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester. "Cities in eastern Germany are now powering ahead of cities here in the north."
A report on Wednesday from the think tank IPPR North showed the region - if it were a country in its own right - would rank second-bottom out of the 39 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for generating investment, ahead of only Greece.
Levelling-up minister Michael Gove said Britain's economy was like a soccer team with a star striker - London - but with a weak midfield and defence.
"The prime minister has made clear ... that he's committed to generating sustainable growth across the country through innovation and enterprise," Gove told the Convention of the North 2023 conference.
The northern leaders criticised Britain's system for requiring towns and regions to bid against each other for the allocation of funds, which they likened to going to London with begging bowls.
Questions have also been raised by opposition lawmakers and academics about "pork barrel" ministerial interference in local funding decisions.
Gove said this competitive process drove innovation, although he added that it could be made simpler.
Residents in the vast majority of places outside of London feel their local area has declined in recent years, according to a YouGov poll published last week - a major challenge for Sunak, whose Conservative Party has been in power since 2010 and now trails badly in opinion polls.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Lisa Nandy told the conference that her party would empower local leaders and "end a century of centralisation".
(Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Susan Fenton,Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich)