Saturday, 21 January 2012

Should the North have devolved government?

With devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, and semi-devolved government in London under whichever ego manic gets elected, should the North have devolved government. A new think tank the Hannah Mitchell Foundation aims to stimulate debate across the North of England on the most appropriate forms of devolution. It held its first annual general meeting in Huddersfield on Friday 13 – on the 119th anniversary of the foundation of the Independent Labour Party in nearby Bradford.

My friend Barry Winter, an activist in Independent Labour Publications and a retired Politics lecturer from Leeds, was elected Chair of the Foundation. “A key priority is to influence thinking within the Labour Party,” said Barry. “At a time when any vestige of regional government has been abolished by the Coalition, we need to make the case for regional devolution on economic as well as democratic grounds.”
Vice-chairs from the North-West, Yorkshire and the North-East were elected. Professor Paul Salveson, a railway writer and consultant, was appointed General Secretary to oversee the development of the Foundation.

·         “I’m a strong believer in giving the North of England the sort of powers that regions in Germany and other parts of Europe enjoy,” says Paul.

·         “That would benefit England and the UK as a whole. The alternative is to see a growing economic divide between North and South.”
Linda Riordan, MP for Halifax, the Foundation’s President says:

·         “At a time when we the future of the United Kingdom is coming under increasing scrutiny, the North needs its own devolved government within the UK, otherwise we risk being part of an increasingly centralised, Tory-dominated, England.”
The Foundation is named in honour of Hannah Mitchell, born in North Derbyshire.

·         She was a grassroots activist in the early socialist movement in Bolton and then Ashton-under-Lyne and for many years a Labour councillor in the Newton Heath ward of Manchester.

·         “She was a great working class socialist and passionate advocate of women’s suffrage,” says Riordan.

·         “She epitomises all that was best in the North of England’s radical traditions – who better to name the Foundation after?”
“We hope the Foundation will make a real impact on English politics”, said Barry. “We’ve already got strong backing from several MPs and John Prescott has agreed to be a patron. Our next step is to organise a launch event in Bradford in early March”.

The Foundation has a website at and membership is open to individuals and organisations, both large and small.
How can the North cope with Condem Strategy to increase the North-South divide? 

While the Coalition has set out to rebalance the economy, its economic policies will do little to reverse existing long-standing imbalances between London and the South-East and other parts of the country argues another friend Michael Ward in his report Rebalancing the economy: prospects for the North. Report for the 'fair deal for the North' inquiry undertaken by the Smith Institute, and published last year.

·         'Indeed, withdrawing resources may have the effect of widening the gap between prosperous and lagging parts of the country, making a bad situation worse.'

·         Rebalancing the economy in favour of the relatively disadvantaged regions like the North 'is neither easy nor straightforward'. 

·         'It demands a fairer allocation of resources, strong delivery structures, and a lasting commitment from government and its partners in the councils and businesses of the North. Without these basic building blocks, the prospects for the North look worryingly bleak.'
Wealth and prosperity are concentrated in London and the South East.

·         Attempts to bring new jobs and economic activity to England’s declining regions has always had limited success.

·         For 100 years the British economy has been subject to powerful centralising forces pulling things to London and the south, whether the new consumer goods industries in the 1930s or more recently financial services. 

·         The half-a-million jobs created or safeguarded by the Regional Development Agencies between 2002/03 and 2006/07  'represent real achievements and value for money.

·         But they were never going to be sufficient to reverse the trend.

·         Regional policies, old and new, made a difference, and it was difference worth making. Not to invest would have been worse.'
At the time Michael’s report was published the RDAs were waiting to be abolished and Local Economic Partnerships were being established.

·         The role of LEPs is very limited.

·         Michael argues that the result is that the ConDem Government which proclaims 'localism' is in effect centralising the delivery of some services from regions back to London.

·         He does not argue for a re-instatement of the RDAs, but for learning from the RDA experience and create something better and stronger, through 'the delivery of local development policies' in a more pluralistic, 'more civic, more empowering for third sector and community organisations, with a strong central state ensuring fairness and equity.'
Key recommendations

Within a framework of basic principles, Michael's recommendations consider the steps that business and local government partners in the North need to take. Here are some of them.
Among Michael’s key recommendations are:

(i) Local authorities across the three Northern English regions should take the initiative, together with business, universities and the community and voluntary sector, in establishing a new, strategic advocacy body for the North – a “Council of the North” – to argue the North’s case in Westminster and Brussels. Such an organisation should have a lean, minimal, even virtual secretariat, and access to an independent evidence base.
(ii) Building on the legacy of the regional observatories, and drawing where possible on their work, the partners, with the North’s 25 universities, and alongside think tanks, should establish an independent research, evidence and statistical organisation, working in conjunction with the Council of the North, but empowered to publish its material independently.

(iii) The current local government finance review creates an opportunity for Northern local authorities to draw up and submit proposals designed to benefit the region as whole. There is also scope for organisations across the region to co-operate in expanding Northern venture capital funds, including in association with the local government pension funds.
(iv) Elected local planning authorities in the three Northern English regions should work together, initially on a non statutory basis, to develop a strategic plan for the North, covering key housing and employment developments, infrastructure and skills.

(v) Northern local authorities and their partners, working through the Council of the North or a similar body, and informed by independent research and analysis, should aim to collate and prioritise infrastructure projects, building a consensus across the North. This work stream needs to include longer-term work, designed to identify priorities for future spending review periods.
(vi) Councils should actively promote a debate, based on research and data, on the best use of available resources: is HS2 the top priority? Or would a mix of schemes promoting connections across the North deliver better results?

(vii) Business and local government need to ensure that priority is maintained for the Northern Hub project in the next spending review period, and that engineering and project development capacity is allocated to develop future investment programmes.
(viii) Business and local government should actively encourage the emergence of a range of different financial sources for infrastructure development: not just government, but private and public-private sources, including pension funds, perhaps leading to a Northern Infrastructure Fund.

(ix) In addition to local co-operation between LEPs, Northern local authorities and their existing marketing organisations should collaborate to market the North as a whole as a place for business to locate, developing the Northern brand for international use.
Michael’s full report Rebalancing the economy: prospects for the North. Report for the 'fair deal for the North' inquiry undertaken by the Smith Institute can be seen on   

The Structure of Devolution
The report clearly provides an important foundation for the economic discussion by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

An important issue is what will be the most effective and democratic model for devolution? Back in September 2002 when I worked for the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (now merged with Development Trusts Association as Locality) the Labour Government published the Regional White Paper, with John Prescott as main advocate in Government. I was a contributer at a National Association of Councils of Voluntary Action Conference Workshop discussing the White Paper.

I argued that the White Paper:

·         was a top-down sham, boring and verbose - a complete turn-off.  Much of it dealt with the issue of elected Regional Assemblies, which will not happen for years, and were unlikely to be achieved in more than 1-2 Regions.

·         proposed settings up a new form of top-down dictat.

·         offered a sham democracy equivalent to the Emperor’s new clothes

·         would provide challenges to local community and voluntary sectors. 
Bottom-up analysis

The Settlement movement was built on the understanding that a healthy society must be based on the needs and aspirations of the individual and the household, and on the development of collective self-help organisations that are the bedrock of a healthy and democratic  civil society, especially the mutual sector.
As multi-purpose service, project and community development centres, with a particular focus on the neighbourhoods that the private and public sectors have betrayed over the decades, bassac members started from the position of what are the needs and aspirations of individuals, households, community groupings and the neighbourhood.
2002 was the period of the introduction of the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the introduction of Local Strategic Partnerships and Community Strategies. bassac argued:
·                   that the regeneration of areas must start at neighbourhood level, with the development of neighbourhood strategies, which become the building blocks for the Local Strategic Partnership approved local authority area Community Strategies.

·                     that the Community Strategies should be the building blocks for the formulation of the Regional Strategies.  

·                     that all existing regional strategies should be reviewed when all local authority strategies were agreed.

·                     that regional strategies should not dictate down to local authority level, but work to help achieve the community strategies and deal with issues that have been agreed across community strategies.

·                     that the revitalisation of democracy must be rooted in the future development of civic society through community and voluntary sector organisation, and the establishment of statutory neighbourhood governance structures – like Neighbourhood Councils.

 Regional Assembly Democratic Sham
I argued that while there was such a high level of public disenchantment with the then current methods of democracy, the issue of elected Regional Assemblies at the time was a confidence trick. Its democracy was a sham. Of course that disenchantment has grown massively aided by what I have since called ‘The New Corruption’

·                     The size of the electorates for each elected position was even then far too large for there to be any meaningful relationship between electors and elected: one of the reasons that has reduced the contact between MPs and local authority Councillors and their electorates, and makes the concept of democratically accountable MPs a mockery.

·                     The ConDem Government proposed reduction in the number of constituencies will make the situation worse, especially for those MPs who have to keep an eye on affairs across local authority boundaries. 

·                     There would be conflicts of democratic legitimacy between elected Regional Assembly members, MPs, MEPs and local Councillors. There would be a need for a raft of machinery to ensure consultation and involvement of these and non-elected stakeholders.

·                     Without responsibility for service delivery, Assembly members would be manufacturing work to fill their full-time role.

Alternative Approach.

I suggested that it might be far better to throw the concept of elected Assemblies to one side, and to think through how the advantages of regional governance can best be provided that built on existing structures. One approach might be to say that they should be about enabling co-ordination and joined up thinking. Then the membership should be made up of:
-          the MEPs – who would be able to build real links between the region and Europe

-          the MPs – who would be able to bridge the gap between region and Parliament

-          the local authorities – who would be able to properly co-ordinate

-          with co-options from other stakeholders

Government Control
The Government claimed that strengthening regional government was decentralisation. As long as it controlled the majority of the finance it would be the piper that called the tune, by limiting budgets, capping local Council Tax raising, and disrupting regions by redefining Government Office and RDA boundaries but not redefining Regional Assembly boundaries until later. The abolition of the Government Offices and the RDAs by the ConDem Government have cleared away these bureaucratic structures.

Expectations on Elected Representatives
I also argued that all elected representatives, whether local Councillors, MPs, MEPs or in any future elected Assembly members, should sign a contract that states that if elected they would:

-          work to represent all sections of the community regardless of race, sexual orientation or religion/no-religion

-          undertake a minimum amount of consultation and report back activities every year including meetings around their geographic area, newsletters, and an annual report

-          hold at least one advice surgery every month, and contact details for people to seek advice in between those advice sessions.

 Implications for CVS
I also addressed the question: So what does this mean for local community and voluntary sector organisations?

·                     They would have to work with whatever structures were engineered by the Government and by regional political lobbies.

·                     The capacity of local groups to take an active part in regional issues would be limited, especially those that do not have staff. There was the weight of consultations – meetings, etc. There were already problems engaging in local agendas – let alone regional ones.

·                     It would need to ensure that local area infrastructures were actively involved in the regional sector forums. This put a great weight of responsibility on CVSs.

·                     CVSs should be translating what the Regional proposals mean for their local authority area in language that the diverse range of local sector organisations could understand and relate to.

·                     CVSs should be arguing the bottom-up approach.

·                     Local community organisations, especially multi-purpose centres, should be pro-active in encouraging debate about reviving democracy, through electoral registration drives, providing ways for local Councillors and MPs to engage with local residents, to organise community action campaigning on local issues, building ways that people can take an active part in the democratic process.

·                     CVSs could play an important role in providing advice on what can be done.

·                     CVS could be using the local Compact process to raise issues relating to activity that promotes democratic engagement through partnership.

My involvement in advising  bassac members in 2001-2  on engaging in Neighbourhood Renewal, Local Strategic Partnerships and Community Strategies, and in 2002-3 helping the five Community Empowerment Networks co-ordinate through the Pentagon Partnership with the North East’s RDA’s Tyne & Wear economic partnership, and then the problems of supporting Wandsworth Community Empowerment Fund in the Local Strategic Partnership, highlighted the serious problems the CVS faces when it attempts to sit around the partnership table, and why any structure which seeks to involve the CVS is likely to engage in pure tokenism, devaluing the whole exercise.  

Back to Thomas Spence

The North East Referendum soundly rejected the Regional Assembly model proposed in Labour’s Regional White Paper. Some of the above issues that I outlined nearly 10 years ago still seem to me to be relevant to a debate on the future of devolved government to the English Regions and ones which the new Foundation will have to address.

The Foundation could usefully re-visit the principles behind the ideas of a key radical from the North East, Thomas Spence of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. From 1775 he argued for all land to be vested in the ownership of parishes, and that the parishes would fund their needs from renting out the land, including looking after those who could not work, and make a payment to a considerably reduced Central Government. This was a real bottom-up and anti-top-down dictat programme. To see more about Spence and his ideas have a look at

A more complex society than existed in Spence’s time might need a three tier system of local, regional and national government. If it does then root authority and revenue at local level, with only what is necessary flowing up to regional and national level. Hopefully this will make for greater accountability, responsiveness to needs, and an end to the New Corruption.  

Note: Salveson’s book Socialism with a Northern Accent: Radical traditions for modern times is published by Lawrence & Wishart

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