What sort of North?
a few thoughts from Paul Salveson
The Scottish referendum is starting to have an impact south of the border. About time too! The media has woken up to the possibility that a ‘yes’ – or even a close ‘no’ – will stimulate debate in the North, and perhaps other English regions, about regional devolution. Today’s Observer (August 31st) carries a double page spread by Robert Yates, headed ‘Will the north follow Scotland and search for greater power?’ It’s here: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/aug/31/one-north-regeneration-railways-jobs-cities .The logic of the article leads inexorably towards a ‘yes’ response and the need for a Northern government. Yet the author raises the idea of ‘new regional structures, a council of the North for instance?’ only to say ‘there’s not much appetite for such a notion. …there’s not much appetite, in truth, for any huge shifts in governance structure (apart, that is, from the combined authorities embracing smaller towns that feed into a city, following the example of Greater Manchester). Oh really? Is there any appetite for ‘combined authorities’ beyond local authority leaders? I don’t think so. The Observer article didn’t go beyond the rather narrow horizons of a small number of local government leaders, whose agenda is to look after their own. Most people outside those narrow confines have any idea about ‘combined authorities’ which are being established with precious little public consultation and even less democratic accountability. West Yorkshire now has a ‘combined authority’ with considerable powers and a large budget. Unlike the former West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, it isn’t directly elected and for an ordinary member of the public trying to influence its decisions, forget it. This is all wrong but there seems to be a conspiracy of silence over it. Over the next few years more and power will be ceded to combined authorities across the North and expect a further decline in voter turn-out.
The Observer article was accompanied by a commentary from Ed Cox, director of IPPR North. This think-tank has produced some excellent material on the need for greater powers for the North, but still steps short of advocating real democratic accountability. The talk, reflecting the views of some Northern city leaders, is about ‘city regions’ made up of combined local authorities, getting further power devolved from the centre. He says “By 2020 we need to see a proper constitutional settlement for England giving local government the kind of autonomy afforded in almost every other mature European democracy.” Yes, agreed, but what about regional government? You can’t construct an effective regional ‘powerhouse’ to rival London and the south-east through an amalgam of local authorities who will inevitably pursue their own ‘local’ agenda. And pretty much every other ‘mature democracy’ manages to combine vibrant local government with devolved, directly-elected, regional government – Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the USA to name just a few. IPPR North’s reluctance to utter the ‘R’ word is reflected in the Labour front bench shyness of advocating regional government. “We don’t want to create any more politicians” was the response from Ed Miliband when the question I put to him some time back at a Labour gathering. What a very odd answer. Hilary Benn said much the same thing when I raised the issue with him. He didn’t have any intellectual arguments against ‘regional government’ as such, but was worried about the effect of Labour advocating ‘another tier of bureaucracy’. This timidity is not shared by every Labour MP, but the devolutionists tend to be back benchers like our excellent Linda Riordan.
Why so timid? Any reasonable person looking at the political map of the UK would see devolved government – directly elected through PR – working well in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – and even London. So the conclusion for England should be glaringly obvious – directly elected regions which take substantial power out of Whitehall. The counter argument to ’additional cost and bureaucracy’ is that you have a much smaller civil service, hence less cost, with ultimately most functions devolved apart from defence and foreign policy. A small number of functions, such as police, could be merged into a regional structure, with obvious economies of scale and real accountability, instead of the laughably inadequate ‘police and crime commissioners’.
Finally, the clinching argument for an all-Northern government to me is the railways. The franchises for Northern and TransPennine Express are currently being re-let by civil servants in London, assisted by officers from ‘Rail North’. This is a joint body of no less than 30 Northern local authorities. You can imagine how accountable this ‘combined authority’ is. And, let’s be honest (if not popular) Rail North’s current role seems to be that of a fig leaf for decisions being made by well-meaning, but remote, civil servants in London. A powerful and well-resourced Northern regional government is the obvious body to oversee ‘Rail North’ which should have complete responsibility for local and regional rail in its area.