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Osborne has made good on his devolutionary proposals from the campaign and has announced the expansion of the powers of the Northern Powerhouse to other city regions in England from the policy’s epicentre, Manchester. Osborne has even expanded his industrial view to include the Midlands, often the forgotten belt of England, with many of the problems of the North but without the proximity to the South-East to have them ameliorated. Devolution is seemingly an unstoppable force and has the backing of huge swathes of the population and cross-party support, but despite it being a self-proclaimed democratic move, George Osborne has been pushing this agenda forward in a contradictorily undemocratic way.
Recently, a petition calling for the North of England to join up with Scotland hit the news because of its significant popular support. The numbers of people signing this and the emergence of regional parties like Yorkshire First show that there is a serious appetite for change and the capacity for self-determination in England. The Conservatives may have just gained a surprise election victory, but over 9 million people voted for Labour and many millions beside for other parties; not everyone is on board with the new government and they want to have a say over how they will be governed in the future. One of the many reasons that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have good polling figures on both sides of the border is that they represent self-determination. For all the self-determination that the petition points to, Osborne’s actions point the other way.
Osborne has made it perfectly clear that in order to receive the money, the city regions he has offered it to must accept a metro-mayor; the Chancellor said, “we will not impose a mayor on anyone. But we will only transfer major powers to cities who have a directly elected metro-wide mayor”. Self-determination in return for being told what form that must take. There may well be some city regions who reject the deal, but considering that no area will wish to be left behind and the precedent of the Labour city of Manchester working with the Conservative government on this, it looks like Osborne will be strong-arming a specific model onto large swathes of the country.
IPPR North has warned in the past about a ‘one-size fits all' model, but this is exactly what Osborne is proposing. IPPR says that a metro-mayor works well for the Greater Manchester region, with its dominance in the surrounding area, but that it wouldn’t work for West Yorkshire where several hubs compete (Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford). Instead of offering a flexible model, in order to maximise the economic performance of the ‘powerhouse’, Osborne is only allowing one electoral set up, limiting the self-determination he claims to espouse and by extension, potentially even the economic growth that he is so adamant his plans will create.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, one of the few cities to have decided to adopt a mayoral system in 2012, Liverpool, will soon have two mayors. The city’s current mayor, Joe Anderson, is furious because instead of him being allocated the same powers as the Manchester city region, the powers will instead be given to a metro-mayor for the Liverpool city region, meaning that those who live in Liverpool will be represented by twice the number of mayors. For those cities and very large numbers of people who rejected a city mayor in the referendum in 2012, their decision has been single-handedly overturned by George Osborne and their decision given to politicians. Under the moniker of democratic devolution, Osborne has pursued exactly that which was rejected by a referendum under his time in government.
Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were introduced under the last government as one of the centrepieces of their localism drive, in part to replace the regional development agencies that were removed early in the government. LEPs, having only just received central funding this April have been side-lined when it comes to EU money. EU money given to the UK specifically for regions in the UK like Yorkshire, for use by LEPs, has instead been reserved by Westminster. With one hand George Osborne has been doling out money and power to local regions but with other, keeping those same things meant for the regions.
Devolution in its current state is uneven and confusing. The Greater Manchester region is being offered different powers to Sheffield, which is different to what the Scottish parliament has, which is leaving London behind. Members of the public are being offered different levels of democracy based on a postcode lottery and the plan that Osborne is pursuing will not improve this. Further devolution is an inevitability and by all accounts a necessary reform to our democracy, but the way that it is being pursued under the slogan-heavy approach of Osborne is pulling it in the wrong direction.