Is it okay to hate Tim Leunig?

Burning a dummy in effigy
Guardian Readers burn Tim Leunig in effigy.

Press, politico and blog reaction to the Policy Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report has been quite extraordinary. The Guardian today was particularly wretched, producing a big special article extolling the North (if you really think it’s so great, why did you leave Manchester then?) and quoting David Cameron extensively (audio here):

“This report is rubbish from start to finish,” he said, repeating the charge four times in two minutes. “I think the author himself said it might be a bit barmy. It is barmy.” Referring to the report’s co-author Tim Leunig, he added: “I gather he’s off to Australia. The sooner he gets on the ship the better.”

Being part of a multi-media network these days, the paper has been prominently advertising Chris Grayling’s rebuttal of the report on Comment is Free (“I’m not allowed to say what I really think of it on a family website”) while failing to mention that Tim Leunig himself has an article giving his side of the story. To compound things, the paper has issued a handy extract of the report providing all the “damning quotes” while failing to mention its actual proposals or even provide a link to the report.

On the blogosphere, Leunig is variously described as a “twat” and a “fucking idiot.” Recess Monkey has been far more restrained, merely posting a mugshot of who presumably all right thinking socialists should direct their Daily Hate towards. Finally, noticing that no-one in the media appear to have noticed that Leunig was the central party’s golden boy 12 months ago (he being of the Community Land Auction idea), the Lib Dem press office have issued a standard press release so all local parties can join in with the fun (I’m surprised that Tom Papworth is moaning about this though; doesn’t he have some Focus leaflets to deliver?). But just to show what a classy act we really are, the party has declined to issue a national press release. I’m sure those of us working in public policy are now really reassured that the party will stand by us when the chips are down.

What is most remarkable is that in the last 24 hours since it has been available, none of these people appear to have bothered to read the actual report. Jonathan Calder has, and it is hard to fault his analysis:

David Cameron has called Cities Unlimited “insane”. My own reaction on reading it is quite different. While I like the idea of selling empty property cheaply to its neighbours and local control of development funds, it seems to me to be based on two quasi-Marxist assumptions. They are:

  • contempt for piecemeal reform;
  • the belief that it is the state’s role to forecast how society and the economy will develop and then expedite that development.

The fact is, Leunig and James Swaffield do bear some responsibility for the mess they have found themselves in. Fundamentally, they appear to not be able to make their minds up. On the one hand, most of the prescriptions of their report are excellent. But their analysis of the situation is at the height of economistic hubris. No-one can deny that northern towns such as Manchester and Newcastle have declined since the height of the industrial revolution and have struggled to recover since, but how does that inform us about the future? No-one can deny that the south east has been beneficiary of the post-industrial era, but how does that lead one to conclude that it will remain the case over the next 20-50 years? Can you really measure success and failure in such simplistic economic terms (I for one would move back to Manchester in a heartbeat if I thought I could have a similar career to the one I have here in London; I can’t stand the Capital)? Fundamentally, how can you claim to believe in devolution and reject ideas of a command economy while proposing to plan UK-wide demographics down to the last neighbourhood?

It isn’t really the north that should be upset by this report, it is the good burghers of Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire whose countryside Leunig and Swaffield are proposing to tarmac over. Yet this is based on the assumption that in a post-industrial information age, location will remain as important as it was 100 years ago. My ill-informed analysis is different: the south east has boomed while the north has wilted because that is where the UK’s knowledge economy has been focussed. Invest in a knowledge economy up north and there is no reason why we can’t see benefits across the country. From reading the report, I would expect Leunig and Swaffield to agree with that, at least up to an extent, so why preface their work with the counsel of despair which has caused them so much heat over the past 24 hours?

Back to the media reaction though, I have to wonder if this whole row has been engineered by the Policy Exchange deliberately. The Smith Institute has just had an uncomfortable year with the Charity Commission breathing down its neck. The Policy Exchange must know that its intimate, revolving door relationship with the Conservatives is likely to come under scrutiny sooner or later. So, why not engineer a row with the Tories? And use a Lib Dem as the patsy to boot?

Earlier this year, there was a suggestion that Nick Clegg’s Policy Exchange speech had been leaked to David Cameron thus allowing the Conservative leader to undermine his rival by making a strikingly similar speech 24 hours earlier. Charity Commission investigation or not, if you are a Lib Dem you would be well advised to only sup with the Policy Exchange with a very long spoon.


  1. Leunig and co are right – he is telling why this decline will continue as the shift of trade and the type of trade is based on what the South has to offer- just read the report!
    I am so dissapointed that everybody wants to continue hidding behind regeneration policies. Leunig and co’s remit was “What is the faster way of increasing the income of the poor people up north?” and the fastest and best way is “Move!”. This sort of move is habitual in the US – just look at the detroit rustbelt and the sunshine states. I just think a national debate is needed over priorites, and if priorities are to reduce income inequalities then Leuning and co’s ideas make danm good sence!

  2. I thought the point was that the economic benefits received by the South had been poured back into the Northern towns and cities without any great results? The way the Independent wrote it was that the report was a critique of regeneration funding, in which case I’m right behind Leunig et al…

  3. It is a critique of regeneration funding and that’s the bit I have no difficulty with. The problem is, they go and spoil it all by suggesting that there is “no realistic prospect” of the North’s economic prospects ever improving relative to the South East. That was just a silly thing to say.

  4. Part of the ‘last throw of the dice’ strategy we can expect from the Left between now and the next election.

    It suits me that free-thinking Lib Dems are tarred with the ‘yellow Tory’ tag as Recess Monkey and his ilk retreat into the thought-free zone.

  5. As a northerner who has moved south after wasting a year of my life trying to find a graduate level job in the Durham area, I’d have to say Leunig and Swaffield are correct. The nub of the point is that most northern towns are too small to be a meaningful place for development – and most sensible people in the north realize this. Interestingly the part of the report that could really help northern communities that are struggling – the idea to transfer control over regeneration spending to local authorities so they can spend it on actual local priorities rather than pointless arts centres has been completely ignored by the media.

  6. “Back to the media reaction though… And use a Lib Dem as the patsy to boot?”

    Which makes the lack of response from Cowley Street understandable, especially considering Leunig has defended his controversy-stirring admirably as that of an independent academic unrelated to any party.

    Which makes me think the internal politics at Policy Exchange are slightly different than how you see it. Could there be a bitter power struggle going on? Has Cameron fallen into the divide between TeamBoris and the economic liberals by criticising them? Was TeamBoris subtly shifted out to make way for a less-than-subtle shift in position?

  7. Oranjepan: there hasn’t been a lack of Cowley Street response, there has been a cowardly Cowley Street response – issuing a press release for local parties to issue in their area (which I am forbidden to reproduce here) while not issuing a national response.

  8. A great bit of sanity on the debate here!

    I have to admit to being surprised by our local press releases. I agree that PE are far too canny for this to have been a mistake. While they obviously are far too close to Cameron, I think it would be a mistake for Libdems to ignore them. Long spoon or not they are coming up with some creative thinking in areas that the traditional thinktanks ignore.

    ps Tim was also a lecturer of mine at LSE and I echo james’ comments about him being a great teacher and really decent guy.

  9. This is one of the stories I would have love to have commented on, but have been rather distracted with family matters. Having worked on regeneration projects my feeling is that they so often fail because they don’t engage any of the people they affect to support. The great and the good pronounce on what the masses want and in their view, need. This report, sadly, is an example of what I despair of in so much policy making/developing…….a bunch of very clever, usually Oxbridge white men, pontificating on worlds they have no understanding of and certainly would go wash their hands if they accidently touched. Because they could upsticks without so much as a byyourleave, they think everyone else could too……. Tim may be a darling, but that doesn’t mean he understands jack….or should that be Jack?!

  10. I am a Southerner who moved North, and am currently living comfortably in Bolton!

    The problem with the Leunig report is that it looks at the north form the only terms that southerners understand, making money, money and more money. The culture in the north is not the same as the south, most southerners wouuld sell their children if there was a decent profit in it, whereas most of the northerners I know just want enough to have a decent standard of life and something to pass on to the kids.

    Industry in the north makes a huge contribution to the UK economy, without it the UK would be goosed as all we would have is Banks and Insurance companies. And before anyone says that there is no industry left in the UK, I can provide evidence of approx £3~5Bn per year of Manufacturing industry outside the South East.

    The main problem in moving the North to London is that I’m not sure how the concept of communtiy spirit would work in London, last time I was there I said ‘good morning’ to a man walking out of a shop doorway, he promptly ran away! Most Londoners can manage several days without speaking to another soul, outside their circle of friends and co-workers, that doesn’t happen in the north.

    Perhaps Leunig should stick to what he knows and show people how to be greedy and make more cash and leave most Northerners to do what they do best, live their lives happy in the knowledge that they dont have to go and live among those ‘miserable buggers in t’south’.

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