Northern devolution and the importance of pan-Northern policies

Devolution to the North should be built on co-operation across the region.

Michael Dawson
4 November 2014


In Professor Paul Salveson’s most recent article for openDemocracy, he argues that collaboration between the regions is ‘crucial’ in the fight for devolution.

However, the issue is not if devolution occurs, but how and with what outcome. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), for instance, were apparently created to localise power. Yet in practice, Heseltine’s brainchild has compelled local authorities to compete with one another for resources and thereby ensure that Whitehall remains firmly in control. The political class of this country are aware that such piecemeal measures will no longer placate the British public and, even prior to the Scottish Referendum, an all-out charm offensive was launched to bribe the silence of the coalition’s regionalist opposition.

Cue George Osborne, a man obsessed with the City of London and its status as “the home of international finance”. In his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech, Osborne proposes a series of Northern megacities as the obvious answer to Britain’s over-centralised economy. Of course, that’s a very logical conclusion if you’re a privileged and out-of-touch member of the aristocracy. Yet for ordinary people, the establishment of city-regions would be disastrous for a number of reasons:

Firstly, London’s crony capitalism is something to be criticised not imitated. For instance, Danny Dorling highlights that the UK capital is the most unequal city in the Western world, with the richest Londoners nearly three hundred times wealthier than the poorest. This begs the question: can we really trust Britain’s political and financial elite with rejuvenating the North? The answer is a resounding no!

Under current proposals, the most likely scenario is that Northern cities would elect powerful mayor-like figures whose interests lie firmly in maintaining the power of Whitehall. In place of genuine tax-raising powers, a proportion of tax would probably be given back to city-regions by central government. There is no democracy in Osborne’s plans and they will be of little benefit to ordinary Northern people.

We need control over our cities, our economy and our resources. By following the ‘devo-met’ proposals of the mainstream parties, we are complicit in another botched attempt to shape the North to the needs of the South East.

However, individual Northern regions must also beware of adopting a ‘go it alone’ mentality. The only option is for the regions of the North – Yorkshire, the North West and the North East – to unite under common policies.

While Campaign for the North is in favour of regional assemblies, our policy paper ‘The Case for the North’ identifies several areas of formal collaboration that are vital for the future success of Northern England as a whole. As Professor Salveson has already focussed on Transport, I will address the issues surrounding Tax, Policing and Healthcare. It is imperative that the three regions of the North cooperate on these issues.

As mentioned above, tax-raising powers are the key to devolution. The North needs to be given this ability and the freedom to leverage credit off its extensive asset base.

For example, Yorkshire could theoretically raise taxes as a stand-alone region. In fact, anywhere within one hour’s commute of a Functional Economic Area can theoretically raise taxes. In practice, however, the region would be penalised by tax equalisation and remain in the shadow of an ever-dominant London. The North, however, a region of 15 million people, can provide a sufficient tax-base to act as a counterweight to the South East.

In another scenario, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumbria could decide against cooperation and, at a later point, form a Bond Consortium when trying to raise the capital necessary for large infrastructure investments. Yet this option is unlikely to result in AA ratings as the availability of demand-led funding for Bond Consortia is seen as far too risky. Once again, the North, as a single region, could remedy this problem. To secure finance for vital improvements to local economies, the North, as a whole, must come together. A trans-Pennine powerhouse has far more economic clout than an insular region of a few million people.

The same is true for Policing. As they currently stand, Northern police forces are a disparate rabble of the corrupt and the inefficient. At a massive cost to the taxpayer, it is illogical to maintain a system that fails to deliver for ordinary Northerners. A model similar to that of Scotland, however, could vastly improve the standards of Northern policing. The amalgamation of Scotland’s police forces into one unitary structure has proven to be a resounding success. In its first full year, Police Scotland achieved resource savings in excess of £110 million. This allows greater investment into local communities and ensures that both crime and cost are kept down. It is a sustainable and democratic model that would abolish the large bureaucracies and vested interests endemic across much of the North’s police forces.

With respect to the Healthcare also, it is no secret that previous governments’ mismanagement of the NHS has led to a broken system that provides better care for residents in the South than for those in the North. Lower life expectancy and higher rates of chronic illness among Northerners serve as a reminder that our needs will always be put second by the political mainstream. This is further aggravated by the fact that new changes to NHS funding will see the wealthier Southern counties given more resources per capita than the poorest in the North. The current system has failed and is in dire need of fixing. Only if the North stands together, as a political and economic unit, will we see the lives of ordinary Northerners improve. The time is now for cooperation, to unify in common opposition and to end the hegemony of a political elite that will always leave us by the wayside.

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