As it happens I am very fond of Keighley and its people having worked there for 8 years and lived close to it for over 20 years. But on any measure you care to use, whether it is health, life expectancy, income, job prospects, housing quality, environmental pollution or educational achievement Keighley is in a different league to Richmond upon Thames.
In fact the two places are so divorced from the experience of life in the other location that they might as well be in very distant countries. Plenty of people will tell you that this is just the way it is and that the poor have always been with us and there have always been contrasts between the north and the south. There are also some very affluent parts of the north and the contrasts aren't always that stark. All that is true. But it feels to me that the contrasts between communities have become more extreme than at any time in my life. We also seem to have moved into an era where the different classes and the different regions have a lot less experience of each other than I have ever previously encountered.
There is a reason for this. The generation that fought the Second World War had a number of experiences in common across the classes and the regions. Some very upper class people crouched alongside some previously unemployed labourers in fox holes and shared the experience of being shot at. When you have lived through that it is hard to dismiss the poor as a bunch of layabouts who want to live off welfare. The same is true of those who worked together on farms, in factories, down mines or in home guard units.
Too many of our current generation of politicians, press barons and leaders of public services seem to simply have no experience of how anyone who is not upper class lives their lives. They seem almost angry with them for existing and certainly are very cross with them indeed if anyone dares to suggest that the very wealthy should give up some of their high end salaries to pay taxes to support someone poorer to get a decent education, decent healthcare or support with a disability.
This lack of contact between social groups was exploited endlessly during the referendum campaign. One reason that UKIP was so successful was that they were able to convince large chunks of the population of the English and Welsh regions that they were being neglected by remote government that knew little of their lives. Bizarrely they thought the investment banker Nigel Farage was more in touch.
The simple reason that UKIP was able to use this line so successfully is that they were exploiting a simple truth. Look at Bradford or Rochdale or Dudley and you will find great swathes of neglected land, disused factories and run down homes. Fixing these problems is expensive and very few private developers have the least interest in building there. It costs a lot of money to take a disused old factory and turn it into luxury apartments and you can't sell them when you've finished if families take one look at the local school and say that they are not going to send their kids there. Left to the free market and with weak planning laws building developers will always go for new Green Belt land. So we have the crazy spectacle of 6,000 new homes being planned in Bradford on the Green Belt whilst the city is chock a block with sites that would be snapped up for development in London and transformed into highly attractive character homes.
Fixing the regional divide requires government investment and planning. What is happening instead is the exact opposite. Investment isn't being channelled into the regions. Instead investment in public infrastructure is going almost exclusively to London and the South East. Investment per head in London is over £800. There is not one English region that receives investment per head that is half this figure. In other words investment in London is being subsidised by regional taxpayers and resources are being extracted by the UK government from areas of neglect and directed towards the most overheated part of our economy. Despite all talk of the Northern Powerhouse there is no plan to create a coherent northern transport service to look after a population that when you count Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool and surrounding areas gets very close to that of London. In fact the imbalance of investment is set to get worse. Crossrail 2 is predicted to cost around £30bn. HS3 for the north is nothing more than a vague idea that is associated with a Minister who has now been sidelined. No serious money has been allocated to any major new transport initiative in the regions.
Ironically one of the few things that has equalled out this UK government investment imbalance was EU regional funding. Areas like Sheffield, Hull, Sunderland and South Wales where large numbers of people voted for Brexit were in receipt of significant EU regional funding. The loss of those funds risks further disadvantaging those communities.
In these circumstances it is really important that we hold the Brexiters to one of their main promises. They constantly told us that we didn't need to worry about the loss of EU structural funds because the UK could have a better regional policy. On one level they were right. It isn't hard to construct a better regional policy than the EU uses and it isn't hard to do one that involves less bureaucracy. I have in the past both successfully claimed EU funding for an educational project and managed an allocation of several million pounds of EU educational funding. Neither was a good experience. Short term, mechanically target ridden schemes were not the best way to tackle years of educational disadvantage. We ought to be able to do better.
So let's see the policies that we've been promised. It would be fantastic to see May's government correct the imbalance in investment per head across the regions. It would be great to see it come up with a strong regional policy that actually works. It would be astonishingly good to see the UK government allocating funds with little bureaucracy and much long term purpose. It would be amazing to see the north acquire a single co-ordinated transport body like London transport to replace the many competing private franchises that don't work well together. It would be wonderful to see Hammond use the autumn budget statement to put serious investment into tackling the UK's regional imbalances.
But I am not going to hold my breath. The ideology that we have to leave it all to the market forces and we can't do anything to sensibly plan our economy runs deep in the Conservative party. The people drawing up the new UK policies will have a strong opposition to conscious government action and very little experience of life in Keighley, Sunderland, Dudley or Pontypridd. Policies will be drawn up by people who depend on votes from some of the most comfortable parts of the country who are wedded to market solutions to every problem.
It is not impossible to draw up a strong regional policy to take the country forward post Brexit but we have a generation of politicians who have lost touch with the reality of lives in the regions. Expect to see those regions lose EU money and get nothing significant back in its place.