On 4th November 2004, after a postal ballot of over 900,000 people, the result of the North East Regional Assembly referendum was announced. The result wasn’t close. Every single local authority area rejected the proposal, with an overall split of 77.9% to 22.1%. New Labour’s plans for directly-elected English Regional Assemblies was over. Two further planned referendums in the North West and Yorkshire & the Humber were cancelled, and the prospect of devolved government to the North to match the London Assembly faded from view.
On 23rd June 2016, the result of the EU referendum was closer, but still decisive. Every area in the North East apart from Newcastle voted to leave the European Union, with 58% of voters in the region overall backing Leave. Looked at regionally, every single part of England apart from London, from South West to North West, voted out.
It is tempting to draw a straight line between these two results, twelve years apart, and blame a lack of local power and accountability for the effectiveness of the campaign slogan ‘Take Back Control.’ But problems in the relationship between Westminster and everywhere else run much deeper than this – to the level of outlook, values, even ethics. For years the UK economy has acted like a pinball machine. No matter how many barriers placed, initiatives started, or compacts made, the money always seems to roll south.
Devolution on its own can’t right this situation, but the huge change in thinking in Westminster that could – one based on a principle of only making the decisions that only Westminster can make – would necessitate significant devolution of powers to the cities, towns, and villages of England. A devolved system only makes sense if that devolution addresses the increasing divides between our cities, towns, and rural areas, and between the university educated and the non-university educated — one of the strongest predictors of whether someone voted to leave the European Union.
“For years the UK economy has acted like a pinball machine. No matter how many barriers placed, initiatives started, or compacts made, the money always seems to roll south.”
After the Brexit vote, further devolution is required by the democratic demands of the English people, and by the values shift that the vote represents. Devolution should not be argued for on economic necessity alone, and it should adapt to growing scepticism over ideas like inclusive growth and social mobility. Unquestioning approaches here have been a key reason for the failure of economic, political, and cultural elites to explain the voting behaviour of the past few years, not just in the UK but across Europe.
But devolution offers a chance to rectify imbalances embedded in a Westminster-centric model of government. As Mayor Andy Burnham writes for DevoIntelligence this month, this system could see us moving beyond party politics at local levels, and, I would add, perhaps building in more participative procedures. We’ve seen the first shoots of this in recent months as Andy Burnham set out GMCA’s vision for vertically-integrated public services centring on local areas rather than departments.
Meanwhile Conservative Ben Houchen, Tees Valley mayor, argued successfully although counter-intuitively, for the major regional transport hub – Durham Tees Valley Airport – to be brought into public ownership and for contracts to be tendered to local firms. As Andy puts it in his piece, devolution offers an opportunity to do politics differently: to create a new system “based on people, places, progress, and shared interests.”
Of course, there is a lot to do, and we will have to wait and see whether this is enough to begin to address the divides outlined above. But the success of devolution shouldn’t be left to city centre-led growth strategies which, with looming threats of geographically displaced working patterns and automated industries, could leave millions of people in areas excised from Government growth charts.
“The success of devolution shouldn’t be left to city centre-led growth strategies”
Realistically, the future of devolution is still dependent on the long-view from Westminster. If Jamie Driscoll wins the North of Tyne mayoral election (as he is expected to), and Ben Houchen isn’t elected for a second term in 2020, a Conservative Government might look much less kindly on devolving further powers, especially if Mayoralties and Combined Authorities are used as platforms for knocking Government policy rather than adapting to centrally-imposed conditions.
For now, the Government has Brexit to deal with. A project not only of the next few weeks and months, but years. For Leave voters, the EU represented a world of the fast-moving, highly educated adaptors, whose ideas and values didn’t align with their own. The simple open vs closed narrative is a Westminster one and collapsing these false binaries will need a lot of hard work by those in local government.
The case must be made to Westminster that wide-ranging devolution of power is the best opportunity to prevent further social division. Devolution should be seen for what it needs to be: a major opportunity to bring democratic accountability closer to the people of England.