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The Northern Powerhouse and Boys’ Own world of devolution

The Northern Powerhouse and Boys’ Own world of devolution

🕔11.Aug 2016

The partial demise of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and the male line up of Labour’s mayoral candidates are the focus for local government expert Chris Game.

Among Germany’s better gifts to the world are its compound nouns. Wouldn’t English be enhanced by having single words for, say, the sort of wimpy individual who wears gloves to throw snowballs – Handschuhschneeballwerfer – or a man who pees sitting down – Sitzpinkler?

Or the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others – Schadenfreude – which some West Midlanders, pettier-minded than me, have no doubt experienced recently, as the future of George Osborne’s much vaunted Northern Powerhouse (NP) has become steadily more uncertain.

It was/is a serious economic and industrial project, of which Osborne was indisputably the hands-on architect: to redress some of the country’s hugely debilitating North-South economic imbalance by focussing investment on a cluster of northern towns and cities and their 15 million population – centred politically, if hardly geographically, on Manchester.

But, like deficit elimination, questionable Chinese trade deals, vanity investment projects, and most of the other hallmarks of the Notting Hill Posh Boys’ rule, the NP has suddenly run out of friends at the very top.

Theresa May has been turning the screw, broadening at every opportunity her leadership campaign call from Birmingham’s Austin Court for a “proper industrial strategy” – to include not just northern cities, but spreading the benefits of growth (what growth? don’t ask!) across all the country’s cities, towns, regions, rural areas, and no doubt villages and hamlets.

Manchester City Council’s A-team – Leader Sir Richard Leese and Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein – don’t seem any more successful than Birmingham Council Leader John Clancy in getting a decision from the Government on the future of even already promised EU funding.

And now we have the intriguing prospect of the likely elected mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region joining forces to change the very name, and refocus the NP into an NWP or North West Powerhouse.

On Tuesday it was announced that Labour’s candidate for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) mayoralty will be Andy Burnham – Health Secretary in the Brown Government and currently Corbyn-appointed Shadow Home Secretary; also, rather pleasingly, a critic, when it was first announced, of the devolution of health and social care to the GMCA, suggesting it could lead to a “Swiss-cheese NHS”.

Then on Wednesday we learnt that Burnham’s probable counterpart on Merseyside – Labour’s mayoral candidate for Liverpool City Region – would be Steve Rotheram, Liverpool Walton MP and Jeremy Corbyn’s Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Like New York gamblers in Damon Runyan novels, Rotheram swiftly laid down his marker, addressing Theresa May directly during his acceptance speech: “Prime Minister, you may have backtracked on the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, but with Andy Burnham as metro mayor of Manchester and me as metro mayor of Liverpool City Region, it is our intention to create a ‘North West Powerhouse’”.

Interesting – though he does make it sound like yet another boys-only game. But then that’s true of pretty well the whole world of elected mayors, Combined Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), and indeed English devolution generally.

I remember a widely published photo back in 2014, showing the leaders of the Greater Manchester councils signing one of their devo deals with George Osborne, and thinking what a sad advertisement they presented: a bunch of exclusively white and largely middle-aged men, hoping to sell their newly acquired boys’ toy to an already sceptical population, over half of whom are female and about one in six non-white.

The Guardian headlined its report: “Where are the women? The ‘pale, male’ council leaders driving the northern powerhouse” – with the sub-heading: “Concerns are growing that none of the soon-to-be-elected mayors in the English devolution deals will be women”.

Certainly that concern has so far proved well-founded. One of the defeated Labour hopefuls in Liverpool was the local MP, Luciana Berger, but in this week’s other two Labour selections – including Siôn Simon in the West Midlands – despite early talk about how important it would be for at least one short-listed candidate to be a woman, in the end the party just couldn’t be bothered.

After decades of snail-like advance, nearly a third of our councillors are women, nearly 30% of MPs, over a quarter of judges, nearly a quarter of university professors – all of which proportions are still pretty shameful. Yet even this desultory progress seems to have bypassed almost entirely the backwater that is the devolution world – as shown in the accompanying table.

CA and LEP memberships









Taking the three city regions whose Labour mayoral candidates were selected this week, of the 35 constituent and non-constituent council leaders who form the CAs’ current leaderships, just one is a woman and one an ethnic minority. And, certainly in the West Midlands, the mixed business/local authority/education representation on our three LEP boards isn’t much better.

If devolution were a football pitch, it would resemble a parents’ match at, say, a boys’ grammar school, with women largely relegated to keeping the score and slicing up the half-time oranges. I’ve not even mentioned the Olympics so far, so, given how Women in Sport have at least begun to modernise their worlds, perhaps we need a Women (and Ethnic Minorities) in Devolution.

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