Whitehall must give power to regions or admit levelling up means nothing


By Lord Jim O’Neill, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

In March, Greater Manchester (where I grew up), became the first city region outside London to take control over its bus network.

Though much of the media focus centred on the economic and environmental benefits of a London-style bus system, it’s important to remember why Andy Burnham was able to make that decision in the first place.

While I served as Commercial Secretary in the Treasury, Greater Manchester signed a series of devolution deals with central government, deals that would grant the region powers over areas including transport, skills and even health.

The Mayor’s bus franchising announcement was devolution in action. A case in point for how empowered local leaders could instigate real change in their communities, making progress on key local issues that mattered most to the electorate.

Just a few weeks earlier, Sheffield City Region had unveiled an £860m spending plan to help the area recover from coronavirus with the help of “gainshare” funding, the £30m promised every year for 30 years as part of its devolution deal.


Meanwhile, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been able to improve local rail services, preparing Darlington station for Northern Powerhouse Rail.  

All are hugely important changes for Northern areas. All were made possible because central government trusted local leaders to do their job.

This week, West Yorkshire will choose its first ever Metro Mayor. It’s an important moment, one which could see the first ever female candidate elected to the post.

Whoever is elected will need a comprehensive plan for spearheading a recovery – and in a recovery, there is no substitute for local knowledge and place-based expertise.

The case for devolution has never been stronger. Voters are becoming increasingly aware of the disconnect between themselves and officials working in Whitehall.

Moreover, the structure and size of central government means that it rarely tackles issues that bridge several departments at once.  Problems are addressed in silo rather than through a comprehensive, multifaceted approach that is far more effective.

Devolution is built on co-operation and trust. It was George Osborne, a Conservative Chancellor, who gave away funding and powers to city regions led by Labour councils – a move made possible by politicians reaching across party lines to find compromise.

We need to approach a recovery in the same spirit. Metro Mayors can and must be trusted to lead the bounce-back of our great Northern towns and cities, decarbonising the economy from Liverpool to Blyth while creating jobs right across the Red Wall.

Decades of Westminster decision-making and underinvestment for areas outside the South East has left the UK as one of the most centralised and regionally imbalanced countries in Europe.

We need to find a way to re-engage the voters in left-behind areas, many of whom feel locked out of a political system that has ignored them for years.

That means raising education standards among long-term disadvantaged children and investing in skills to allow workers to access higher-paid careers. It means building better transport and digital infrastructure to connect people living in the North to better opportunities.

And it means securing devolution deals for the whole of the North, from Cumbria to the Humber.

Taking back control was never just about the European Union. If politicians in Whitehall fail to learn the lessons of recent decades, if they fail to take long-term economic and social reform seriously, talk of ‘levelling up’ will mean nothing.

These voters want change – real change. It’s time to put devolution back on the agenda.

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