Northern Powerhouse launches template for post-Brexit English devolution
Could a form of regional government be back on the agenda in a post-Brexit devolution settlement? The north of England is lobbying for what looks like a turbo-charged rehash of the regional assemblies of the 2000’s, while closer to home the Midlands Engine is still trying to get into top gear, writes Paul Dale.
George Osborne, the Government’s devolution champion, is being urged to sanction a Council of the North, bringing together political and business leaders from the cities and the regions “to counter London-centric policy making as well as reducing the layers of bureaucracy at local government level”.
Details of how such a council would work in practice are scant, but the body could be based on the former regional assemblies which brought together elected councillors, business representatives, universities, trade unions and the third sector to act as a regional planning body.
The idea is contained in a report by the thinktank ResPublica which maps out how the Northern Powerhouse initiative could be given fresh legs in a post-Brexit settlement. In its Manifesto for Finding True North, ResPublica says:
We need Northern leaders to collaborate beyond city and region, to come together as a Council of the North and demand systemic and transformational change from the Westminster government.
The north needs massive investment at scale and across multiple sectors at the same time. It needs to recreate its entire economic ecosystem and start making Whole North choices and Whole North investments.
The manifesto sets out a range of devolved powers that could flow to the north.
These include giving the region’s councils control over some benefits, social funds and discretionary payments such as housing, as well as the right to levy a health and care tax, subject to gaining approval through a referendum.
Other ideas include connecting northern cities from Liverpool to Hull via a ‘Trans-North’ rail line and creating a northern wealth fund from the benefits of shale gas exploration.
It’s also suggested that northern “cities and localities must have the right to control regeneration”. And in a throwback to the regional assemblies and their spatial plans, ResPublica says this could happen through “Pan-Regional Regeneration Partnerships, led by cities and their satellites”.
These would push regeneration across the north by meeting affordable housing targets at the regional rather than local level; ensuring the benefits of devolution go beyond urban hubs.
The document was welcomed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark and Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton in what is a change of direction for the Conservative Party, which until fairly recently fought bitterly against all forms of regional government.
Mr Clark spoke warmly:
This is an important and thought-provoking manifesto that deserves to be carefully considered. The Government will work closely with partners across the north to devolve more power to people and places in order to realise our ambitious plans to build a Northern Powerhouse.
He was backed by Mr Osborne, who said:
One clear message from the referendum was that there were parts of our country which felt left behind and one of the reasons that I said two years ago that we needed to build a Northern Powerhouse was to make sure the whole country shares in our economic prosperity.
We have made enormous progress. We have secured agreement to elect five powerful new mayors across the north; we have made substantial transport investment commitments and we have also made major commitments in science, research and culture.
That is all designed to create an environment where the private sector can invest more and help build up the North. That is something I am passionate about and committed to and we have to make this work now.
If anything the referendum result is even more of an instruction to deliver the Northern Powerhouse and make it a reality.
It remains to be seen what roles will be played by Mr Osborne and Mr Clark under the new Conservative party leader and prime minister. More importantly, if they are shifted from the Treasury and local government, will they be replaced by devolutionists or centralists?
The Midlands Engine, a bold plan to bring together councils, local enterprise partnerships, universities and further education colleges across the east and west Midlands, is nowhere near as advanced as the Northern Powerhouse, which has the added advantage of having George Osborne as its chief cheerleader, while the Midlands has Business Secretary Sajid Javid.
Broadly speaking, the aims of Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine are the same. That is to transform connectivity through improved west-east rail links and open up their regions for foreign direct investment, creating jobs and wealth. This can only happen, they argue, if the Government is serious about handing fiscal powers to combined authorities and metro mayors.
ResPublica has warned the Northern Powerhouse dream could fail unless there are wholesale changes to the way everything from education to energy, taxes to transport, is administered. A similar case might be made about the future of the Midlands Engine.
Director of ResPublica Phillip Blond said:
Post Brexit it its vital we don’t lose the north once more, we must maintain the urgent reinvention of our country and we must demand from those who would be our leaders that they mirror their paeans to social justice with a new deal for the North equal in scale and ambition to what Roosevelt offered America in the 1930’s.
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