Is the North about to finally take back control?


By Henri Murison, Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Could the North finally be starting to take back control? No, I don’t mean Brexit (but more on that later) – I mean devolution.

For many years devolution was rarely discussed outside local government. Recently, however, something has shifted.

Businesses are seeing the benefits of empowered local leadership for their own priorities. Activists are becoming louder in their calls for decision-making to be brought closer to communities. They want locally-led, joined-up policy-making that understands the unique opportunities and challenges of each city region.

For decades, politicians and civil servants in Whitehall and Westminster dominated but now mayors are in the ascendancy.

At the start of December, Gordon Brown, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves came to Leeds to unveil Labour’s plans for devolution, which they said would constitute “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people”.

It was a big moment, one which signalled an opportunity for genuine political consensus. A few days earlier Jeremy Hunt had told the Northern Echo, ” I want to explore what we could do where we’ve got really inspired local leadership to set elected mayors and council leaders free…our structures in the UK are very centralised and usually it ends up with someone having to come and ask the Treasury for something.”

Both Labour and the Conservatives have put devolution at the heart of their offers to close the North – South divide. The remaining question is who is better placed to deliver on those promises.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea. A number of prominent politicians from across the political spectrum, including David Miliband and Michael Heseltine, have long been advocates for the devolution and wider decentralisation agenda.

Most recently, when George Osborne was Chancellor, he signed a series of ground-breaking devolution deals with city regions across the country, creating the first metro mayors in 2017.

“Global cities have powerful city governments” he said, and if we wanted to build the Northern Powerhouse as an international brand, if we wanted to give each place “the different specific things it needs to get growth going”, then we needed a champion for each place – a mayor.

Many of that first generation of mayors are now in their second term. While still somewhat hemmed in by Whitehall, there’s no denying they’ve have had an impact, whether in bringing down bus fares or improving skills provision.

And they’re only just getting started. The M62 Mayors Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Tracy Brabin have been joined down the M1 by Labour’s Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire – together they’ve been a powerful coalition fighting for better rail infrastructure, including Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines.

Meanwhile, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen is a rising star in the Conservative Party, bringing his own brand of Johnsonian boosterism to the region.

There’s a new mega-deal on the cards for the North East, where my own political career and ambitions started (and ended). While the region already has a mayor, this would create a much bigger, more substantive coalition of councils together into one economic entity.

Elsewhere in the North, a new devolution deal for York and North Yorkshire could see a new mayor handed £540m in gainshare funding over a 30-year period. Access to this funding has to be one of the most compelling reasons for councils (and voters) considering becoming a metro mayoral authority.  

Breaking the dominance of Whitehall is also hugely important for making sure the idea of Global Britain becomes more than just rhetoric. While researching our report into inward investment this year, we found that the North’s story was one that international investors recognised and understood, one they could work with. That strategy seems to be working – foreign direct investment into the Northern Powerhouse has soared 72% in the last five years.

Who should decide where buses or trams go? Who should decide what skills we need to be equipping our workforce with, in order to fit the needs of local businesses? Who knows where investment for local research and development assets would be put to best use?

In the new year the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will be taking a closer look at fiscal devolution – both the opportunities and challenges it raises. Clearly, it would see reductions to what the Treasury itself receives, and we need the right stabilisers in place for areas with the lowest tax revenues.

After all, if ultimately we want to become less reliant on Whitehall, we must be able to pay our own way.

I want to make the case for devolution as a transformative economic policy, as well as a path to genuine political reform, with metro mayors helping reconnect people to power.

Which brings me back to Brexit. When the UK (including many here in Yorkshire) voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it went much deeper than just a disdain or distrust of Brussels, stoked by the money of those like the businessman Paul Sykes. It was about a feeling of powerlessness which had built up over decades, of being ignored by the powers that be who think they know better.

Post-Brexit, that feeling hasn’t gone away, not least because the promises made by those like Johnson turned out to be ones he himself couldn’t keep.

If we want to heal divisions, we need to empower communities and reconnect them to a sense of shared destiny, over which they can have a proper say. People must feel able to change their destiny, rather than just accept it.

This is the only way to fix our broken political system and truly ‘take back control’.

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