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Last modified: 28 May 2015

Bring on the NorthernPowerhouse

Quick, not considered. Written in two hours, or it wouldn’t get written. I’m doing a huge piece on this in the coming months which will be ten times better. If I could get paid for doing it, it would be fifty times better. It will have lots of data and references. Until it does, read this and this and consider this a teaser.

This is a response to this.

My first and overwhelming response is to beg everyone not to fall into the “not good enough, so let’s do nothing” trap. The Northeast Regional Assembly proposals in 2004 were not good enough, so people said no. Yorkshire never even got to vote on its regional assembly. AV wasn’t good enough in 2011, so people said no. Proposals for elected mayors in UK cities in 2012 were not good enough, so people said no. We are running out of time. We cannot dither.

Only the SNP have managed to overcome the easy option of saying “no, not good enough” in British politics. They did so in 1979 when they supported a Scottish Assembly that they felt was not good enough but that was better than nothing. As in so much of British politics, the SNP are — but for their core motivation — an inspiring example to follow.

Why has the North of England not generated a similar movement? It is simply because the structure of the British establishment makes it almost impossible to have a voice in support of federalism without being inspired by nationalism. You either join a London party and bargain and compromise away your local interest for the short-term national good, or you join nationalists where they exist. The rational and inclusive movement that the SNP is today are the product of that process. The absence of any true regional voice within the Labour party is the other side of it.

Until recently, parties like Yorkshire First faced huge institutional barriers to existence. The internet and social media have helped but the UK’s institutions will remain designed to destroy them. The driver of devolution in England will necessarily therefore be from a centre that resents the transfers of cash needed to maintain the Union. Is this ideal? No. But it is now our only option.

If we had regionalised power over spending, even within existing structures, as with the two decades of the Barnett Formula in Scotland before the establishment of a parliament I think we would by now have a good foundation for English federalism. To our great fortune Manchester offers an alternative and George Osborne is extremely wise to back it.

 

In Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Glasgow I regularly have fascinating, challenging, and positive debates about the NorthernPowerhouse. Jennifer Williams at the Manchester Evening News and Helen Pidd at the Guardian have done a terrific reporting job to inform that debate. The Yorkshire Post has hosted excellent opinions and editorials. John McDermott at the FT has brilliantly covered Manchester’s aspirations.

By comparison, most of the national discussion is dire. The BBC are mostly uninterested. When they get interested, their London-based stars like Evan Davies, Stephanie Flanders, and Jeremy Paxman are embarrassingly ill-informed. The BBC is unable, probably because it does so little outside of London, to draw on the genuine passion and expertise of many in the North. Newsnight, Question Time, and Radio 4’s Today program are almost blind to the vast majority of Britain.

The Guardian are even worse. Almost every week they seem to produce a piece where someone in London writes the NorthernPowerhouse off as a Tory plot. When they find a Northerner to write something they all too often have ambitions to emulate Venezuela on the Mersey, but funded by the Southern money they despise rather than oil.

 

I was very happy then to read a constructive evaluation of the NorthernPowerhouse hype that posed some real questions. I will answer them.

Is the NorthernPowerhouse an answer to the West Lothian question?

No. Good.

The North doesn’t care about the West Lothian question. We vote for the centre-left and Scotland votes for the centre-left. Edinburgh is closer to Leeds than London in more ways than just geography. I’d much rather have Alex Salmond or Alasdair Darling vote on an issue than Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Scotland trampling on Southern privilege within the UK is an Issue for the South. It may well have won the UK election for the Tories but it did so more by entrenching a parochial majority in the South of England than by winning a majority in the more outward-looking and welcoming North.

I disagree that England has ever rejected federalism. We have never been offered federalism and we have an institutional structure that makes debating it impossible.

Will it give the regions outside London more money?

Not much and not immediately. The key is that the North’s cities will be able to make the kind of difficult decisions that Scotland and Wales have. We might choose, as in Wales, to underfund our NHS. Or as in Scotland to subsidise wealthier university students. These are difficult choice that can only be made with local accountability and some promise of a future pay-off.

So, will the regions of the North get more money? A bit, because the UK’s spending will move more towards its optimal distribution as the North argues for it. But in the long term the gains will be larger. There is no reason that the North-West of England should be so much poorer than Ireland or the Netherlands which both, lest we forget, operate completely separately from Paris and London.

Will it rebalance the economy?

Yes.

Law changes allowing regulation of transport will drive urban agglomeration. Elected Mayors will demand more time on the BBC to make current injustices known. Local control of planning will let the North build homes and expand where the South refuses to.

London will always be the UK’s largest city and one of its wealthiest but suggestions that London “is bigger, by some distance, than any other city in western Europe” are not true. Nor does this explain the majority of its comparative success. By many measures Paris is larger. France achieves greater regional equality with similar challenges and there is no reason that the UK could not follow that lead. It is true that UK wealth increases as you get closer to London but only if you ignore the two regions of the UK a century ago that have — in various measure — opted out of full Union. Ireland and Scotland are much wealthier than the Northern regions of England that have stayed unquestioningly loyal to London. If proximity to London creates wealth then loyalty seems to destroy it. The UK must get a lot less loyal, and a lot more like the Netherlands whose provinces battle each other as equals.

The process of rebalancing will be slow, but it will happen. Already Sir Richard Leese is the only voice opposing public funding of Heathrow expansion. I have given dozens of example of infrastructure schemes and scientific projects that were funded in London against the best evidence. If the rational decision had been taken, London would be slightly less rich, and the North would be slightly richer. With a voice to make that point, such historic aberrations are less likely to continue.

Will it make public services more efficient?

Yes, very quickly, see Leeds’ outstanding results at getting people back into work. But this isn’t the point. Public services need to be less efficient in the short term. We need to try things, fail, and improve. The North needs to own its failures and its successes. Time and time again in the study of successful cities we see that generating and retaining talent is the best predictor of future success. Talent is not attracted to efficiency; it is attracted to opportunity, growth, and future success. London may well know best now, but it doesn’t know best in the long term. We must be allowed to fail, to learn, and to succeed.

 

Above everything, the NorthernPowerhouse gives the North a voice. We have never had one before. The UK establishment is not used to being challenged from the North, now it will be. It is very brave of George Osborne to force through the changes that might let us challenge both him, and the establishment he is part of. We should accept his offer.

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