English Devolution: Where Next?

Has the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ hit the buffers? Four years on and despite all the hype around connecting the North like never before, the #NorthernFail meltdown has exposed a stark reality which is a far cry from George Osborne’s original vision. The fact is you can’t have the drivers of ‘powerhouses’ or ‘engines’ holed-up on rammed trains, going nowhere fast and feeling utterly powerless.

The new timetable, and delays in planned electrification, are symptomatic of a much wider failure of Government to improve rail across the North. Despite unprecedented cross-party collaboration and a sense of collective outrage from Northern Mayors, MPs, media, business and civic leaders all calling for investment, accountability and action, there has yet again been a surprisingly Westminster-centric (none) reaction. The renewed Northern Rail strikes this week show that the chaos is far from over.

Given that the Northern Rail shambles is the kind of stuff that brings down failing Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State, surely the Government can no longer afford to ignore the angry voices of Northerners? It needs to listen hard and take urgent remedial action.

It is quite simply not good enough to just compensate Northern Rail passengers for the inconvenience caused. That’s tantamount to sticking a plaster on a broken leg. It will do nothing to heal any of the underlying problems caused by decades of Government under-investment and over-promising. Also to only recognise the misery caused to #NorthernFail passengers ignores the millions of others across the North, who consistently suffer intolerable journeys every day.

Like most things – including the national rail timetable – what happens next will be decided centrally. Instead the Government must wake-up and listen to the calls for more powers to be devolved. Transport for the North (TfN) knows what the North needs but does not yet – along with the many other sub-national transport bodies – have sufficient power to hold franchises to account. An acceptable response from Government would be to give TfN the powers and resources it needs to deliver a 21stcentury transport system which drives growth, connectivity and investment in the North. In a post-Brexit Britain the North needs to be a true powerhouse and the Government must be seen to act.

To realise the North’s potential and to really get things moving, the North needs to be given real power. The first Convention for the North, taking place this weekend will bring together Northern Metro Mayors and Civic leaders. This collaboration has the potential to forge pan-Northern agreement on what the North needs. Working with the Northern Powerhouse APPG and other Northern groups and business leaders the North’s voice must be far stronger and not fall on deaf Westminster ears. It is time to have a Campaign for the North with clear pledges and direction. We need to build consensus behind a shared vision for the North and get behind the Northern Powerhouse concept.

There is so much the Convention for the North and/or a Campaign for the North could do. Collectively the North could call for powers and resources to be devolved to TfN; a Northern Education Challenge – funded by Westminster but run in and by the North; all employment and skills funding and levers to be passed down to devolved level; a pledge on building great housing and meeting housing need; and a demand that the devolution jigsaw is completed by 2020. Just a few ideas but convening that voice is powerful stuff and makes sense.

These and other ideas regarding how to create deeper, wider, better devolution across England will be the focus of DevoConnect’s event “Where next for English Devolution?” with Jim McMahon, Labour’s spokesperson on devolution, James Palmer, Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Ed Cox, now at the RSA, and Edna Robinson, Chair of the People’s Powerhouse. A Government who promised to give back control and listen to the voices of those who felt they had been failed, needs to think fast about how they are going to devolve more power and resources – and not just to the 21 million people who already have a Metro Mayor.

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