Why the north needs devolution — on our own terms
Robyn Vinter on how people in the north of England are hungry for change in their area, and why it needs to be locally-led to succeed.
As a reporter, I spend a lot of time in towns in the north of England speaking to people on the street about the biggest issues for them and their neighbours, both local and national. I tend to have a lot of the same conversations over and over, especially when it comes to politics.
One of those goes something like this: I ask them who they voted for, or were planning to vote for, at the local elections. They often say they voted against the party that has control of the council because “it’s time for a change”.
It is common that people feel a sense of general unhappiness with their local area that they cannot quite put their finger on. When they talk about national issues they might say the problem is immigration, inequality or the way that crime is dealt with — for some, too leniently, for others, overzealously.
But when you really dig down to the specific local issues, among the well-informed and carefully considered responses, more often than not people will talk about things that councils have little control over or are just simply not responsible for. They talk about council tax bandings, the number of jobs available for young people locally and poor public transport networks.
Most of all, they mention the consequences of austerity — though not austerity itself — and the effects they have noticed of enormous local authority budget cuts over the last decade — but, again, only the effects of shrinking budgets, no mention of the budgets themselves. Surprisingly often, people will even criticise their local council for its lack of presence, which I’m sure will be deeply frustrating to read for those who have had to make the difficult decision to cut services and jobs — and, of course, those who have had their jobs cut.
Most people do not understand the role and the limitations of local authorities and they don’t really know that modern councils bear only a passing resemblance to councils of 15 or 20 years ago in terms of means and reach.
Put simply, for large swathes of the electorate, a lack of power and resources locally is interpreted as poor decision-making from their local representatives and they vote accordingly — it is a perfect example of functioning democracy, if only they were right about who was making the decisions. The crucial but often overlooked element of the discussion around devolution in the north of England is that many people think we already have it.
Whitehall seems happy for local authorities to pick up the blame for things that they have no control over, meanwhile reinforcing this with a kind of paternalistic scaremongering, with claims that devolution could increase inequality. While it is true that poor management at local level may leave one local area lagging behind its neighbours, evidence from federalised countries like the US and Germany is that more local powers means greater economic growth for every area and for the country as a whole. Even the small amount of devolution that has happened in the UK backs this up too — Scotland and Northern Ireland are estimated to be performing better economically than they would have been without devolution, while London growth has skyrocketed since powers were devolved locally.
Besides, the idea that handing over greater control would create local inequalities is only really a valid argument if you ignore the gaping inequalities that already exist, that have been created by national government.
The north of England has suffered enormous economic decline over the last 50 years, with investment, particularly around desperately needed infrastructure, stalled.
Leeds, where I live, is a perfect example — the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system has been fighting for one for 20 years, each proposal put forward knocked back by national government. Most recently, proposals for a city-wide trolleybus were turned down due to not being far-reaching enough, after the previous tram proposal was turned down for being too far-reaching.
These kinds of centralised decisions are a huge irritation among people who live here and even more so among local leaders.
Jessica Studdert, New Local’s deputy chief executive, tells me there is a strong appetite for devolution among local government, “but frustration about the terms on which it has been offered to date”.
One example that is often cited by devolution critics is the North East devolution deal in 2004, which was rejected by 78% in a regional referendum. The strength of feeling was such that every council area in the region returned a “no” majority.
But that did not mean the region was opposed to devolution as a concept, only that the deal on the table was not good enough for the North East.
The dream had been an elected regional assembly that would give the region more power. But what was offered was a watered-down version with a lack of powers, not enough funding and an unnecessary restructuring of local authorities.
A lot of the recognition for the success of the “no” campaign in the North East has been given to Dominic Cummings, who was a key figure and was responsible for stunts like burning a million pounds worth of fake £50 notes to demonstrate the supposed waste of money that the deal would have represented.
But that would be giving him too much credit — for many people in the North East, the deal was nowhere near good enough.
With the right deal, devolution is incredibly popular. In November last year, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly said Scotland’s devolution deal had been a “disaster” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”, he was criticised by politicians from every part of the political spectrum, including Scottish MPs within his own party. He later backtracked and said he had meant that the SNP’s handling of Scotland was a disaster.
Those careless words from Johnson were not simply a blunder — they betray a truth. For him, a high-profile devolved administration that presents itself as a credible and competent alternative to his Westminster Government is a disaster and I doubt it is any coincidence the comments came just weeks after a YouGov poll showed Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was more popular in England than he was.
In a country that has had some form of Conservative government for 10 years, it is easy to lose sight of what alternatives look like. When people believe that there is no difference between how parties would behave in government, democracy is weakened.
When there is greater devolution and there are prominent examples of alternatives to centralised leadership, even when those local powers belong to someone else, it weakens Westminster’s grip and highlights examples of ineptitude and negligence among national government. That’s what Johnson does not like.
And he is right to especially worried when it comes to the north of England. The pandemic has provided a litany of examples of how centralised decision-making has adversely the north. When Johnson introduced local lockdowns last year for areas with high rates of Covid-19, he reduced the level of economic support, penalising parts of the country — almost all in the north — that were already suffering.
When bars and restaurants were prematurely reopened last summer, cities in the north that rely economically on those sectors more than in the south, were hit hard with a second wave.
During this time, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham clashed so vehemently with the prime minister that he attracted the attention of the national media, which is no mean feat.
For once, a sliver of the message seemed to land — there would be no way, and indeed there was no way — that London or the home counties would have been treated with such carelessness and indifference. Put simply, without Burnham’s devolved role, the north would have been left struggling to have our voice heard.
It is very much of “out of sight, out of mind” for decision-makers in Westminster — and who can blame them, it is easy to ignore issues in the north of England when you don’t spend every day here, when you are not the one sending your child to a local school that is in special measures and when it is not your local hospital maternity unit that has closed down. And it’s fair to say every government in living memory has been guilty, to a greater or lesser extent.
People might argue the parliamentary constituency system is designed to stop this but it doesn’t work well enough. All too often MPs are parachuted into safe seats in areas they have never lived and many don’t spend significant time in their constituencies. When MPs have a lot of parliamentary work, a cabinet role or even just a lack of enthusiasm for constituency work, the representation part of their role can slide with no consistent oversight or scrutiny.
Just as policy that greatly affects London should not be written in Blackpool or Wakefield by people who don’t live there, the same applies the other way around. The politicians making the key decisions about a place should be part of the community who will face the consequences of those decisions, good or bad.
And when bad decisions are made, the people criticised for those decisions should be the ones who actually made them. The truth about devolution is that its popularity and even success is already proven by members of the public who criticise their local authorities for things that councils have no control over. Putting those powers and that funding in place would actually not be a radical shift at all, it would simply bring reality in line with public perception — arguably an easier job than the other way around.
Robyn Vinter in an award-winning journalist based in Leeds.Join our mailing list