Real devolution needs grown-ups in the driving seat
By Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership
The campaign for a Mayor in West Yorkshire has begun. Both candidates will need coherent, innovative ideas on how to tackle our most pressing challenges in the months and years to come: economic recovery, decarbonisation and solutions for entrenched inequalities.
My plea to all those in local government is to remember our campaign for greater devolution has been hard-won. Now that we have some of the tools to build a better future for our region, let’s not squander them.
The intricate process of decentralising power away from Whitehall began under then-Chancellor George Osborne and Lord Jim O’Neill in the Treasury. Starting in Greater Manchester, it spread as far as Sheffield City Region but then stopped in its tracks in Yorkshire.
In those areas able to secure devolution deals, Labour civic leaders and the government put aside their differences to commit to invest in long-term priorities.
Improving social mobility or investing in better rail services isn’t partisan, it’s a no-brainer. Whilst Westminster thrives on gladiatorial contests between right and left, leading cities and regions requires a more mature approach – one able to reconcile opposing political factions in the pursuit of the greater good.
Local leaders need strong principles, good judgement and boundless energy. They need to be capable of reaching across party lines to deliver real change to local people, avoiding any instinct to land a political punch on the other side.
Steve Rotherham and Judith Blake, soon to became Baroness Blake once she joins the House of Lords, are just two of our great political leaders here in the North. There are tough times ahead and we need leaders such as them to make the case for further investment across the Northern Powerhouse.
However, while we are clear that more funding is needed in areas such as education and large-scale transport infrastructure, our real goal is to reach a point where we are not reliant on Whitehall hand-outs.
Once the North’s productivity has drawn in line with the rest of the country, and once we have real power over local decisions, we can take control over more of the taxes. This would not mean increasing tax overall, simply restructuring how it is raised so that we can align investment decisions with future returns.
Taxes should raise funds to unlock growth, later capturing the monetary uplift generated as a result. Taxes used to fund local services and investment must be overseen locally, replacing the outdated and unfair Barnett Formula.
Again, this requires grown-ups at the table to make reasoned judgements on how our priorities are ranked and paid for – not engaging in spats over unrealistic demands for the sake of short-lived popularity. The Chancellor, himself a fair and reasonable decision-maker, can spot those serious about real economic growth from those just in it for the glory.
Our current funding and powers are nowhere near enough to recover economically. Nor will they be enough to deliver the sorely-needed transport upgrades to boost connectivity, such as a new rail line from Leeds to Manchester, through Bradford. Once again, we find ourselves in a situation where our future depends on politicians in Westminster.
This forces us to start thinking creatively about ways to generate money, such as a road user charging system to replace fuel duty, once the electric car makes it irrelevant.
Megaphone diplomacy cannot and will not secure a recovery. Real leadership isn’t about lobbying for more money – it is about making the case for why an investment will pay dividends for local communities (and the taxes they raise) later down the line.
The North is on the up. Invest in us now, give us more powers over local decisions – and reap the reward in years to come.
Working with businesses and organisations accross the North