As a Northern developer we have a keen interest in how the regions are developing and what the future holds. Whether you look at Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield or Hull, it is clear that the fortune of individual places in the North is dependent on the success of all.
In the seventh article of this series, we take a look at how the Westminster must devolve power to the Northern regions if it is serious about unleashing their potential. Keeping power in London maintains an artificial glass ceiling and, therefore, puts limits on what the North can achieve.
Any conversation about securing the future of the North and rebalancing the national economy will inevitably come to the question of where power resides. The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world, with almost all decisions being made in London. This has indisputably led to power and finance being focused in the capital and South East at the expense of everywhere else. For decades the Northern regions have suffered from chronic underinvestment and been treated as an afterthought by successive governments.
If the economic fortunes of the North are to change then it follows that political power must also be devolved to the regions. No one can seriously argue that politicians and civil servants in London are best able to understand what Northern cities and towns need to thrive. Local solutions, not blanket policies, are required. If not, we will end up with more situations like in Leeds where local government and business is desperate for a light rail service like Manchester’s Metrolink, but central government is denying permission for it to be built for unclear reasons.
Handing powers like that back to Northern cities has been a key part of the government’s Northern Powerhouse strategy from the beginning to enable more local decision making and benefit people and communities directly. The best example of this is Greater Manchester where the elected mayor, Andy Burnham, and the local councils have taken wide-ranging spending powers which include becoming the first region with power over its own health and social care spending – an area which is particularly important to the future of the North.
Other interesting devolution deals include the North of Tyne deal which is centred on Newcastle but includes both rural and urban provisions, and the proposed Sheffield City Region deal which is tied up with the larger One Yorkshire devolution scheme and requires a degree of compromise from four separate councils. However, despite a positive beginning there is still a lot of work to be done. These regions are outliers and many others have no devolution in place at all.
In addition, it can also be unclear where to draw the lines for devolved powers to best reflect how people actually feel. Another legacy of all power being centralised in Westminster is that those making decisions often have no idea how people relate to each other elsewhere in the country. A good example of this concerns Hull and the Humber. Hull is a part of Yorkshire, but the city’s economy and its people tied far more heavily to the other towns on the river such as Grimsby which are not in Yorkshire. Any deal which splits the two sides of the river would have severe repercussions for major businesses such as Associated British Ports which operates on both banks.
While there is a lot of work to do the first impressions are generally positive and the path to further devolution in the future is becoming increasingly clear. Greater Manchester in particular is demonstrating what can be done and it is not hard to see others following its lead. Other cities like Preston, with its innovative local economic policies, are demonstrating other ways in which taking back regional power can have outsized benefits.
It might annoy Westminster to give up power, but it is a price they must pay if they are serious about the Northern Powerhouse project. By devolving powers to people who have deep roots and attachments to their regions, and letting them take control of the places they care about, Northern towns and cities can be transformed with a focus on the long term and start to heal the North/South divide which characterises our national economy. What is good for the regions is good for the country as a whole, and devolution is an important stop for the future of the North.