Is regional leadership the way forward for the UK?
As major parties stake claims to the benefits of farming power out to specific areas, questions remain over whether the public grasp what it all means – and whether their local politicians would have any real clout at all
In the past seven days, Labour and the Conservatives have both set out visions for loosening the Whitehall leash on regional powers and spending.
Speaking in Leeds yesterday, Ed Miliband spoke of his desire to see local authorities in major cities band together to create regional economic “powerhouses” to rival the capital in creating jobs. His speech, based on Lord Adonis’ report Mending the Fractured Economy, recommended the devolution of business rates to combined authorities and the devolution of £30 billion of spending to the English regions to boost economic growth.
As Lord Adonis himself admitted, it differs little from the vision set out by George Osborne last week across the Pennines in Manchester. Indeed, Adonis discussed his views with Lord Heseltine, whose report No Stone Unturned set the platform for the government’s apparent conversion to devolution. According to Ed Miliband, the real difference between the parties is that Labour will deliver on their promises.
So, why the renewed interest in devolution? Has the Scottish question focused political minds on the level of Whitehall control that’s appropriate and sustainable on both sides of the border?
While some have seen Osborne’s desire to link cities in the north as a naked grab for northern votes, it’s difficult to see any immediate advantage. Spending on HS3 is a lifetime away if it ever comes. And while devolution is a significant driver of voting behaviour in Scotland, the more complicated identities at large in specific cities and regions of England – and confusion as to what more political autonomy would actually mean – have caused people to vote hard against it in the past 10 years. In November 2004, 78% of North East voters rejected Labour’s regional assembly idea on a turnout of 49%. Likewise, nine of the 11 cities offered a City Mayor by the Coalition in 2012 said “No thanks”.
So if this isn’t about votes, is it driven by managerial considerations about the best way to govern England and help it become more prosperous? Could we conclude that the major political parties all think this is a good idea, and are willing to pursue it despite the politics?
The language might suggest just that: George Osborne is talking about City Regions – a Labour creation linked to the party’s heartlands of the northern cities. In return, Labour is talking about County Regions… whatever they are. Is this fresh term simply a tool to make devolution appeal to Conservative heartlands?
Both parties seem to hope that the right structures on the ground will work themselves out; that authorities will choose to group together and LEPs will rearrange themselves to reflect economic geographies. But without a clear steer from the centre, local politics will likely condemn this difficult process to the hard-to-do pile, while local politicians focus on the immediate here and now. However, if there is cross party support in Westminster for devolution, and a willingness on both sides for it to embrace the local political heartlands of the other, then joint working could lead to clear guidance and agreed frameworks that everyone could buy into. A joint commission on devolution and a clear plan to be adopted in both manifestos could achieve what both parties profess to want.
Wouldn’t that be a tremendous example of centralised political leadership? Or just more Whitehall meddling, riding roughshod over local opinion?
Jon Bennett is Managing Director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications
Find out about CMI’s Regional / Devolved Nation Advisory Committee.